The title alludes to the brutal exploitation of rubber-tappers in the early-20th-century Congo, for Capt. Lalande Biran of the Belgian Force Publique has promised his Parisian wife seven houses with the proceeds of his licit and illicit dealings.
Biran is one of many merciless Belgians in the service of King Leopold in 1903, yet in some ways he’s the most urbane of them all, for he’s a poet and a cultivated man of letters. Every week, however, he has his orderly Donatien procure him a native girl—and she must be a virgin owing to his fear of contracting a disease. (Biran’s usual habit is to give the girl to Donatien after his carnal desires are sated.) Second-in-command is Lt. Richard Van Thiegel, who keeps a list of amorous encounters by the race of the girl he exploits. When Van Thiegel finds a picture of the captain’s ravishing wife, he decides to make her number 200 on his list once he leaves the service. Introduced into this morass of corruption is Chrysostome Liège, a new soldier in the Force Publique, and one who doesn’t fit the mold. He’s a crack shot, is devoted to the Virgin Mary and doesn’t seem to have an interest in the native girls, a fact that Van Thiegel begins to exploit by referring contemptuously to Chrysostome as a “poofter.” Biran tries to speed up his ability to acquire his seven houses and is able to when the price of ivory and mahogany, both of which he illegally harvests, soars. Meanwhile, as a public relations gesture, Leopold is sending a statue of the Virgin Mary to the Congo, and the soldiers must prepare an adequate welcome.
Like Heart of Darkness, with which similarities abound, this narrative is both tragic and traumatic.