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Seven Houses in France
Seven Houses in France
by Bernardo Atxaga
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.19

3.0 out of 5 stars A fable of men's vanity in the colonial Congo, 15 Sep 2013
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This review is from: Seven Houses in France (Paperback)
Atxaga's novel set in King Leopold's Congo Free State has the simplicity of a fable, recounting the friendships and deadly rivalry of a small group of white men in a remote military post. The characters are caricatures and Atxaga's running jokes (Donatien's numerous siblings, the pretentious poet) become boring. There is not enough of the context of the Congo state's genocidal brutality to render the Belgians' isolation and complicity, and so the relations with natives are not believable. There are some annoying anachronisms that further break the spell - the men need not have been anxious about a visit by Henry Morton Stanley in late 1904 as in reality he had died that May; I don't know why the men received orders from Leopoldville when in fact Boma was the capital for another twenty years (into the time of the Belgian Congo colony). The writing style makes for an easy read, but not a convincing or involving tale.


The Last Slave Market: Dr John Kirk and the Struggle to End the East African Slave Trade
The Last Slave Market: Dr John Kirk and the Struggle to End the East African Slave Trade
by Alastair Hazell
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Hazell makes the case for John Kirk's overlooked role in African and imperial history, 12 Aug 2013
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Alastair Hazell's carefully researched book is an overdue correction to the history of a pivotal period in the history of east and central Africa - the second half of the nineteenth century when slavery was abolished and European powers came to exert control. The author's project is to write John Kirk's role back into the centre of this story, and his high regard for his subject runs through the book. To western readers, this is a period still remembered through the unreliable accounts of Dr David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, whose own mythologising writings served their own egos and colonialist patrons. This is a book to cheer anyone who feels the loudest voices don't always have the most interesting things to say; Kirk's behind the scenes role as a diligent scientist and later a neglected British consul in the backwater of Zanzibar is a humbling example of hard-won respect and trust built over decades.

There are some niggles - the earlier sections on Kirk's expeditions with Livingstone (who comes across as a self-absorbed bully) are over-long given that this is background to Kirk's direct efforts to suppress the Arabs' slave trading. In contrast, the moment of his success seems compressed (bizarrely, the fact of Zanzibar becoming a British protectorate - locking out slavery and leading to its present status within Tanzania - is relegated to a footnote). To UK readers in particular, the heedless interchanging of "British" and "English" is grating, and all the more perplexing as Kirk himself was a Scot.

Hazell's book achieves its aim of rebalancing our understanding of the period; Kirk was a true diplomat whose world can bring insights to the the Arab peoples' current relations with the outside world and to the formation of today's concept of universal human rights.


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