Fiction – Kindle edition; Canongate; 320 pages; 2009. Translated from the French by Patricia Claxton.
One of the consequences of living in the fast-moving modern world is that we become desensitised to events that should shock us to the core.
We are bombarded with so much news and information that we cannot process it in any meaningful way. War, floods, famine might fill our TV screens every night but unless you are directly affected by those events we are too removed, both physically and mentally, to do much about it. Deaths become mere numbers — and numbers are impersonal. What does it matter if 80 people were blown up by a suicide bomber in a country you’ve never been to and probably never will?
Thank goodness, then, for the humble novel, which still has the power to move — and to shake us out of our complacency.
Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is one such novel. It’s set during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which more than 800,000 people were systematically slaughtered. It was an event that I was aware of in only the vaguest terms — probably because, as Courtemanche writes in this novel, “the media don’t show dead bodies cut up by men and shredded by vultures and wild dogs”.
Now, having read this book, I know more about what happened in Rwanda than I possibly may have ever wanted to know, but it felt so much more real, heart-breaking and hard-hitting than anything the TV screen could have shown me at the time.
A journalist in Rwanda
The story is told in the third person, but we see it mainly through the world-weary eyes of Bernard Valcourt, a widower and highly experienced journalist from Canada, who is bored with his job as a Radio-Canada producer.
When a friend informs him that the Canadian government is financing the establishment of a television station in Rwanda he jumps at the chance to be its co-director. We get a real sense of what makes Valcourt tick, because it’s not the station’s honorable cause — which is to be educational, “particularly in community health and AIDS” — that attracts him, but the idea that it will save him from the loneliness of his current existence.
But this is mere backstory, because when we first meet Valcourt, by the pool at the Hotel des Mille-Collines in Kingali where he resides, two years have passed since he accepted the job. The television station still hasn’t been launched because the Rwandan government keeps finding reasons to put it off. Once again, Valcourt is bored — and lonely.
But one thing had impassioned Valcourt. He had discovered with horror that over a third of Kingali’s adults were HIV positive. The government was denying its own statistics. Those stricken with AIDS were living in infamy, shame, concealment and delusion. Only a few people were trying to face up to the disaster and, paradoxically, they were parish priests and nuns.
Death and disease
The disease is like a ghoulish spectre that hangs over the entire novel. There is so much death here that the coffin makers can’t keep up with the demand.
But even this outrageous situation, which could easily be contained by condoms and education, is overshadowed by something more sinister: the looming genocide of the Tutsi population. (To paraphrase one character, people might be dying of AIDS and malaria, but the biggest killer is hate.)
On several occasions Valcourt describes the situation in Rwanda as “tropical Nazism”. The country’s “two ethnic groups, the Hutus, the majority by far, and the Tutsis, about fifteen per cent of the population, were locked in an undeclared civil war”. But the Hutus, by sheer numbers and force, had the upper hand.
As a novelist, Courtemanche does not shy away from describing the consequences of this unchecked racism between two black groups. There’s an overwhelming sense of hopelessness when family after family are being torn asunder by brutal rapes and savage murders. And yet, with every incident Courtemanche relays (often in overwhelming technicolor detail), the sense of abject pointlessness begins to build and build.
This is a country on the road to ruin, but no one, including the corrupt Rwandan government officials, the Hutu militia, the Westerners who swan around the pool at Kingali, the international media and the United Nations, do anything about it.
One might expect that Valcourt, already jaded by his time in Rwanda, would flee the country. But something holds him back. Without wishing to make the novel sound like a tacky romance, it’s the love of a good woman who gives him reason to stay.
Indeed, his relationship with Gentille, a Hutu who looks like a Tutsi, is a welcome contrast to the death and destruction that fills most of this novel. While their life together is generally described in carnal terms (along with death, there’s a lot of sex in this novel — you have been warned), Gentille serves as a stark reminder that people cannot be simply classified as a Hutu or a Tutsi on appearance alone.
Time after time, Gentille must explain her background and show her ID card (specifying ethnicity) to prove it, but you know that not every machete-wielding Hutu is going to take the time to check.
Based on a true story
Of course, a novel of this nature doesn’t have an uplifting ending. It’s based on a true story after all. Indeed, Courtemanche claims the book is an “eyewitness report” and that he hasn’t bothered to change the names of those who planned and carried out the genocide. But as you read his account (masquerading as Bernard Valcourt’s account) the sense of impending doom builds and builds. It reminded me a lot of Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma, another novel with a real ring of authenticity about it.
Although there were times that I felt the author was editorialising, I never felt as if he was putting a spin on events or trying to make a point other than the fact that civil war and genocide is a messy, horrifying business and that while humans do terrible, unimaginable things to one another, life must go on. There is some finger-pointing at the Western media, but as a journalist, it’s clear Courtemanche understands the constraints and machinations well enough to know that it would be foolish to pin all hopes on an international news organisation saving the day.
It’s true that no one comes out of this novel looking good. The Westerners who live in the hotel come across as selfish ignoramuses, more intent on living a life of “great adventure” with “perks of prestige, power and freedom they’d never known before”. And yet “every one of these good people gathered around the pool had seen a Rwandan colleague disappear mysteriously, or funds evaporate as if by magic.”
The Belgians, who colonised Rwanda, come out of it looking pretty bad too, mainly for fuelling the racial tensions by favouring the Tutsis for their more “European” appearance.
The men of Rwanda, whether black, white or some colour in between, also come across as brutes who regard women as nothing more than sex objects. Gentille puts it in simple, eloquent terms when she tells Valcourt:
“My whole life, all I’ve ever heard is orders, advice, forbiddings, litanies, hyms and sermons. I’ve never been part of a conversation. I’ve also heard insults and roars from men showing they were pleased or frustrated, but the only long sentences meant just for me are the ones you’ve said.”
And finally, the Hutus come across as Nazis, who arranged mass killings in an organised, systematic and savage manner. To put it more bluntly:
It was not because they were improvising or were out of their minds, but simply that they were too poor to build gas chambers.
Harrowing and confronting
I doubt very much whether this review has done justice to this eye-opening novel. It’s probably the most confronting book I’ve ever read. It’s so shocking and horrifying I felt dirty reading it. It also made me terribly ashamed. You only need to visit this website to see how the international community turned a blind eye to this terrible atrocity.
A Sunday at the Pool in Kingali spent more than a year on the Quebec best sellers list when it was published in the French language in 2000. That same year it won the Prix des Libraires, the booksellers’ award for outstanding book of the year. I’m not in the least surprised. This is a profoundly important book that reveals so much more than a two-minute news bulletin ever could.