King Léopold II's Yangambi garrison in the heart of the Congo is a miserable outpost, populated by mosquitoes, screeching mandrills, venomous black mambas and a jaded, rag-tag corps of the Belgian Force Publique, whose job is to keep the native rubber-tampers in line. In August 1903, a new recruit arrives, setting in motion the darkly comic events that impel Bernardo Atxaga's sly narrative. A naive young provincial from Britancourt, Chrysostome Liège, has a passion for the Virgin Mary, sharpshooting skills and a secret.
Yangambi's commanding officer is handsome Capt. Lalande Biran, a man of culture, a poet and visual artist. He's been six years in this godforsaken place, a year longer than he and his beautiful Parisian wife had agreed upon. He was to stay five years in Africa, amassing enough money through illicit trade in ivory and mahogany to indulge Christine's desire to own seven houses in France. So far she's bought six. As the novel opens, she presses him to stay another year so she can acquire the seventh and finest, in St-Jean-Cap-Ferrat.
When the odd soldier with the blue ribbon around his neck steps off the Princesse Clementine at the River Congo's dock, metaphoric drumbeats of alarm begin to sound, mimicking the harrowing noise of the natives' drums. The new soldier, who neither drinks nor gambles, soon proves he's a crack shot, shaming the garrison's womanizing second in command, the drunkard Lt. Van Thiegel. Unintentionally, Chrysostome becomes a favorite of the captain, who rewards his marksmanship with 100 cartridges, more valuable than jewels in this place that teems with rebels and gorillas.
Atxaga, a prizewinning Basque poet and novelist, threads wry humor throughout: old Lèopold's wish to make a Philadelphia dancer his queen of the Congo, the captain's straining for just the right word to complete a line of poetry, the bobbing of his servant Donatien's unfortunate Adam's apple -- not to mention key characters' fixations on numbers. In addition to Christine's tally of her houses, Van Thiegel lists the number (and the color of each) of his lovers; the captain computes how many tusks and trees he needs to get home, and Donatien adds up the number of conflicting pieces of advice his many brothers and sisters whisper in his ear.
Gradually it becomes clear that Chrysostome has an Achilles heel: his fear of syphilis. Because of this, he's not at first tempted by native girls. His odd aloofness and his shooting prowess breed resentment in the others, who call him a "poofter." Ultimately, the jealous Van Thiegel discovers a way to provoke the newcomer's ire, with disastrous consequences.
Former senior editor of SMU Press in Dallas, Kathryn Lang is a book reviewer and editor.