Africa, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Canongate, Fiction, Gil Courtemanche, literary fiction, Publisher, Rwanda, Setting

‘A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali’ by Gil Courtemanche


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.

22 thoughts on “‘A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali’ by Gil Courtemanche”

  1. A very interesting review. I don’t believe there are that many books in English on this war and I am sure it can’t be uplifting. I only know of books in French, some by Jean Hatzfeld but am not sure if he has been translated. I know of two movies Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April which focus on this war. I haven’t seen the latter but have heard it is very good. I’m nots sure why the sex scenes had to be as explicit as you say. What did he want to show?


  2. I have this hovering very near the top of the TBR at the moment after pretty much everyone at my new book group said how amazing it was! I’d forgotten the name but as fate had it guess what was on display at the library a few days later?
    It sounds like an incredible and truly important book and one that I know isn’t going to make for comfortable reading but is a book I have a feeling I’ll be telling everyone they should read! Wonderful review Kim!


  3. I read this when it first came out having a friend who was doing his PhD at the same time as I was and who came from Rwanda. Although his family had managed to get out, his wife’s people had all been slaughtered. Like me he was coming to the end of his research but just couldn’t quite manage to round off his thesis, which was completely understandable as he desperately wanted to go home and help his country but had a small daughter whom he didn’t want to expose to any danger. I hope I’m never in a position to have to make a choice like that.


  4. I remember reading this when it came out and feeling overwhelmed by it too. (Some of Andre Brink’s books have the same effect).
    A book like this fits into the category of ‘not enjoyable but important to read’. As you say, it shows the power of fiction to make us realise the truth of the media reports we see.


  5. Lisa, I’d actually argue that this kind of literature does much more than the media does. It lets us see the news behind the news, as it were. It shows us real lives and how they are affected. This is much more emotionally powerful than hastily put together news items that can only really concentrate on the main points of the story.


  6. Thanks, Caroline. It took me about two days to write this review because I just couldn’t put into words what I wanted to say about the power and importance of this novel. I will look up Hatzfeld and see if his stuff has been translated. I’ve not seen either movie that you’ve mentioned: I can imagine both would be very powerful and maybe too disturbing to watch. Thanks for the info.
    As to the sex in this book, I neglected to mention that it is not solely Valcourt and Gentille’s bedroom romps but continual references to prostitution and rape. These are integral elements to the political/cultural situation in Rwanda at the time, so I can only imagine that they were included, not to be provactive, but to be truthful to the period in which the book is set. This makes the novel all the more disturbing to read, as the lines between sex and death become more and more blurred. And obviously rape is a very powerful tool in the armoury of the Hutu militia.


  7. Oh Annie, that is so heart-breaking about your friend. I cannot even imagine what it must be like to make a decision like that, and to know that your family left behind were in extreme danger.


  8. Simon, it is such a confronting book. Every page depicts all kinds of gruesome atrocities. I felt sick to my stomach in certain places. I especially felt for the women. I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like to live in a society where your only worth is the sexual gratification you can bring to others. I came away from this one truly reeling. Will be interested to see how you react when you get around to reading it.


  9. Thanks a lot for the clarifications. I really do not like gratuitous sex scenes but I see very well now where the author comes from… Sounds very disturbing. You can watch Hotel Rwanda withouth being exposed to too much graphic violence. It is a beautiful true story about one man’s courage. I liked it a lot.


  10. This is why I am glad that I subscribe to your blog. You are awesome stuff Kim. Life changing stuff and your reading taste truly inspires me.
    I haven’t been following the news for a long time, not because I am disinterested, more so I’m the sort of person who like to know the root of the problem before I pay any attention to the course that history has taken.
    I am going to put it in my TBR list now and I appreciate your thoughtful reviews. I know what you mean when you want to do justice to a great book and spend a long time trying to write a review that reflects that. 🙂


  11. LOL! I’ll take any compliments where ever I find them, Jo — intentional or not! 😉
    Hope you do get to read this book. It’s truly shocking in places but really compelling, too. I whizzed through this one in a couple of days and have been thinking about it ever since.


  12. I always have problems reading books that give me a front row seat to tragic history as it unfolds. That’s most likely a symptom of my own fear than anything else. Sometimes I feel the need to force myself because, obviously, my ignorance will certainly not do me any favours. I’ve recently gotten interested in the work of Romeo Dallaire, who has done some fantastic work in Africa and, his most recent book, They Fight Like Soldiers They Die Like Children, is promising to be very enlightening. Great review. I am very curious to read this now, despite my fears.


  13. That’s kind of how I feel about pre-20th century classic literature, but the only way to get over your fear is to just pick one off the shelf and go for it. If you still don’t like it, then there’s nothing wrong in saying that stuff is not for you – and you never have to read one again. Everyone has different tastes/likes. As you will see from this blog I tend to have a penchant for the dark disturbing stuff because I’m endlessly fascinated by what makes people do horrendous things to one another. It’s another reason I quite like literary type crime fiction.
    Thanks for the tip off about Romeo Dallaire. I will look his stuff up to see if it might appeal.


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