When young Chrysostome Liege arrives by boat to begin his service in the Belgian Force Publique for King Leopold II in the Congo, he is clearly an innocent - a shy, religious, and humorless young man thrust into circumstances which challenge everything he, and the reader, consider "civilized." It is 1903, and the Congo is King Leopold's private fiefdom since he is the sole shareholder of a "non-governmental organization" which makes no pretense of benevolence. From the beginning, the King has used the Congo for his own purposes, forcing an unwilling native population to supply huge amounts of ivory, mahogany, minerals, and rubber which would benefit only him.
For the soldiers in Leopold's Force Publique, especially those assigned to remote areas like Yangambi, where Chrysostome will be working, a familiar social milieu does not exist. The soldiers obey the obvious protocols of the military, but there are only seventeen Belgian officers at the garrison, and with no active rebellion by native groups to keep them occupied, at the moment, they have far too much time on their hands. Might makes right here, and once they have performed their assigned duties, they enter a world which truly becomes a "jungle"--drinking, gambling, pursuing women, shooting animals for fun, and even, in some cases, smuggling ivory and mahogany back to Europe, where the profits will allow one wife to own "seven houses in France" in seven years.
When the King plans a visit, bringing a famous dancer from Philadelphia, whom he plans to make Queen of the Congo, all garrison activity is organized to promote this. Henry Morton Stanley will accompany the King and will attend the coronation of the new Queen beside Stanley Falls. Later the garrison learns that the King will be sending a statue of the Virgin, created by the "new Michelangelo," so that it can be installed permanently beside Stanley Falls as "The Virgin of the Congo." No one finds this ironic.
Author Bernardo Atxaga, whose previous works have been set in his native Basque country in Spain, provides only basic information about the rule of King Leopold II, spending little time on the grand scale of the atrocities committed historically against the native population. Instead he focuses on the behavior of the individual officers in the Force Publique as they respond to their long duty in the jungle. Atxaga's sense of narrative flow reflects his experience with the much longer novels he has written in Basque, and the novel moves quickly, enhanced by intriguing and vibrant details about the time, place, and main characters. Many events are filled with dark humor. Much credit is owed to prize-winning translator Margaret Jull Costa, whose work translating the novel into English is flawless, her ear for dialogue, particularly fine. Though this novel is, in a sense, a kind of morality tale, the author conveys his themes without didacticism, focusing on ordinary characters facing crises, often of their own making. The facts speak for themselves here, and Atxaga lets them.