Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Love and Genocide

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, by Gil Courtemanche


"Redonner leur dignité a vos morts est un imperatif pour tout être humain."

"We can all turn into killers, Valcourt had often maintained, even the most peaceful and generous of us. All it takes is a certain circumstance, something that clicks, a failing, a patient conditioning, rage, disappointment.  The prehistoric predator and the primitive warrior are still alive beneath the successive varnishings that civilization has applied to mankind.  All the Good and Evil of humanity is in our genes. Either one can emerge at any moment, as abruptly as a tornado can appear and destroy everything where minutes before only soft, warm breezes blew."

A few days ago I read a story in the Times about yet another drone strike by the U.S. in a remote area of Yemen that killed at least five members of a wedding party whose members had the misfortune to be alive in a part of the world subject to our capricious military power.  Of course no one in the Obama administration spoke about the incident--just another example of "collateral damage" in the interminable "war on terror."  It was time for the President to go on vacation in Hawaii, and, you know how it is, Yemen is awfully far away.  Such stories should tear us apart, but I suppose they no longer can; we've grown inured to the carnage, and there are more important things for us to worry about.

I hadn't meant to write over the holidays about Gil Courtemanche's remarkable novel of the Rwandan genocide--I finished the book weeks ago and its effect on me was so devastating that I thought I might not speak a word about it.  But we must "restore the dignity of the dead" somehow, especially at this time of year when, in many religious traditions, and in isolated pockets of imperial America, we celebrate the imperatives of hope, the continuation of life in the season of darkness.

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali tells the tragic story of the love of Bernard Valcourt, a journalist, and Gentille, a beautiful Hutu whose misfortune it is to be mistaken for a Tutsi in a divided and impoverished country obsessed to the point of madness with racial and cultural differences. The 'pool' at the Mille-Collines Hotel is the watering hole and epicenter of ex-pat life in the Rwandan capital in 1994 at the commencement of the genocide that killed between 500,000 and one million Tutsis and "traitorous Hutus," to use the language of the Akazu-Hutu leaders of the nation and their murderous partners in the principal Hutu militias.  This act of mass murder, witnessed at a safe distance and without protest over the course of four months by almost all Western nations (Canada and the Netherlands being honorable exceptions), pledged as they were to "non-involvement" in the internal affairs of UN member states*, was far more disorganized, bloodthirsty, and on a much greater scale than the contemporaneous massacres of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian military groups.  Hutu mobs and loosely organized militias hacked men, women, and children to death; burned them alive as they sought asylum in Catholic and Protestant churches, blew them up with hand grenades, and raped and mutilated tens of thousands of Tutsi women, deliberately infecting them with AIDS, epidemic in Rwanda at the time.

Gil Courtemanche was a journalist (he died in 2011), and much of A Sunday feels like the best of Graham Greene, absent the Catholic moralizing.  Courtemanche's narrator (and, one suspects, alter ego) Bernard Valcourt tells the story of his love for Gentille in an extended flashback, and because theirs is a tragic story, the tone of the novel is mordant, world-weary and roiled by the sense of a sane man's despair in the face of madness.  Like Greene's various persona, Valcourt casts a cold eye on his fellow ex-pats, men (mostly) who delight in the cheap liquor and cheaper whores of Kigali, who have no interest in the country's well-being, no respect for the Rwandans whom they order about with the kind of hauteur Europeans typically adopt in colonized nations--men with little or no curiosity about the violence unfolding around them.  They are burnt-out cases, Scoby's or Fowler's whose cynicism allows them to focus on their own futility and the pointless anhedonia of their lives. Alone of all the boozers and misanthropes who gather around the pool, Valcourt has the redeeming quality of being capable of feeling love.  Unlike the men--Europeans and Africans--who devour Gentille with their eyes and who paw her as she delivers their drinks (she works as a barmaid), Valcourt falls in love with a woman who is innocent yet experienced, capable of deep feelings yet jaded by the attentions her beauty brings.  We sense from the second she appears that she is doomed; innocence and beauty are not to be borne by the lovers of death. The motives that lie behind Courtemanche's love story are complex: Valcourt is a lonely man, an alcoholic, and there is little doubt that his love for Gentille represents his last opportunity for redemption; and Gentille yearns to leave Rwanda for a "civilized" nation. Yes, much like Greene--this is a romance set among the corpses.

I might as well say that the last fifty pages of this novel are almost unbearable--that is, the horrors they describe are almost more than I could stand. The writing is brilliant--understated, uncomfortably vivid, evocative of unremitting menace and inevitable violence. There were pages I skimmed or skipped, allowing my imagination to supply details that I couldn't face.  Of man's inhumanity to man too much has been said--Richard Rubinstein's brilliant essay The Cunning of History and Samantha Powers "A Problem from Hell" supply analysis of the genocidal "mentality," but at some point only fiction, or silence, or, as here, a picture can allow us to grasp the meaning of "inhumanity."  This young woman--her name was Uwamwezi Edith, was one of the victims.  I selected her picture at random from the Genocide Archive Rwanda (there are many more).

Even at this joyous time of year, in the crisp cold air of the high desert, with every comfort at hand, with the voices of my children in the background, with my family and friends in good health, I don't want to forget Uwamwezi Edith in her lovely blue dress, smiling into the camera.

For the Rwandan Genocide Site see

 A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, trans. by Patricia Claxton, is available from Knopf and Vintage.   There exists a film of the novel, produced in Canada and directed by Robert Favreau, but I have not seen it.

*Ironically--?--the UN can only intervene in cases of genocide, but who's to say how many dead constitute "the murder of a people"?  Academics in the human rights business still debate this question.  But see Romeo A. Dallaire's Shake Hands With the Devil.  Dellaire was the Force Commander of the UN Peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the genocide and an advocate of Western involvement to end the killing.

George Ovitt (12/26/13)

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Persistence of Suffering

The Case Worker by George Konrad

let all those who want to; one of us will talk, the other will listen; at least we shall be together.

“If there is meaning in life at all,” writes neurologist, psychologist, and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl in his landmark study, Man’s Search for Meaning, “then there must be meaning in suffering.” By this he is not suggesting that one’s suffering serves a  higher purpose, that it is part of some divine or even biological plan, only that in its recalcitrance, its sheer ubiquity, it has the potential to teach us things—things about each other, things about ourselves.

The Case Worker—the first of five fine novels by Konrad to be translated into English—is a strange and strangely moving tale. Set in Soviet-controlled Hungary in the early 1970’s, in a Budapest so grim, so beleaguered, it bears little resemblance to the charming, spa city of postcards and films, the story follows the life and musings of an ordinary social worker, “an underpaid, disabused, middle-level official,” “a burden bearer without illusions,” “a professional child-snatcher,” whose charge is to sell indifference and normalcy, and to protect the interests of the state, a job he performs diligently, if with a mounting sense of impotence, despair:

Go on, I say to my client. Out of habit, because I can guess what he’s going to say, and doubt his truthfulness. He complains some more, justifies himself, puts the blame on others. From time to time he bursts into tears. Half of what he says is beside the point; he reels off platitudes, he unburdens himself. He thinks his situation is desperate; seems perfectly normal to me. He swears his cross is too heavy; seems quite bearable to me. He hints at suicide; I let it pass. He thinks I can save him; I can’t tell him how wrong he is.

Like Dante in the Inferno, the bewildered narrator of this story finds himself falling into a “deep place” (basso loco) where the sun itself is silent, a “gray-brown realm of unrelieved weariness,” a drab, phantasmagoric world crowded with every variety of misfit and tortured soul whose “anguish [is] massive, tentacular, and incurable”. The Budapest of this novel is a special ring of hell in which the damned suffer daily a state of perpetual siege without even the consolation of knowing that their pain matters—somehow, to someonethat it serves the lot of humankind, that, finally, it is homiletic, the handiwork of some remote and sagacious god.   

At one point the eponymous case worker recalls a story he’d heard about a disenchanted rabbi (a tale closely  reminiscent of that of the Buddha’s enlightenment as a young and naïve prince) who, weary of threatening his congregants with the wrath of “Yahweh Ineffable” deserts his synagogue and ventures out into the world to discover it anew. There he finds an old woman dying in her filthy hovel who implores him, “Why was I born when as long as I can remember nothing but misfortune has been my lot?” To which the helpless rabbi replies, “That you should bear it.” Drawing the sheet over her face, he decides from then on to be mute. The next person he encounters is a young beggar girl carrying her dead child on her back. When in reference to her baby, she asks the rabbi, “The poor thing got nothing, neither pleasure nor pain. Do you think it was worth his being born?”—a question to which the helpless rabbi nods his head. Thereupon he decides to be deaf as well as dumb and hide away from the world in a cave. There he finds a ferret with an injured foot, which he heals with bandages and special herbs. Soon the two grow fond of each other. Then one day a condor swoops out of the sky and carries off the ferret before the rabbi’s eyes, so that he decides to close them for good. Yet—since blind, deaf, and dumb—he can do nothing but wait for death, he returns to his congregation, where he “did what he had done before, and waxed strong in his shame.”

The protagonist of The Case Worker, a man all but overwhelmed by the futility of his work, and by the boundlessness of human suffering, is on the verge of following the rabbi’s example when he is trapped, shackled to this world and its pain by the life of a hideously misshapen, nearly feral orphan named Feri. At last, again, I turn to Frankl: “A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the ‘why’ for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any ‘how’.”

György Konrád (1933- ) is an Hungarian-Jewish writer whose first novel, The Case Worker (1969) was based on his experiences as a children’s social worker for the state.  In this and other writings he treats the social and spiritual problems of Eastern European life under fascism and communism, as well after the collapse of Soviet control. Among his other and highly recommended works of fiction are The City Builder (19175), The Loser (1980), A Feast in the Garden (1989), and Stonedial (1998). (Thanks in part to The Columbia Encyclopedia) 

Peter Adam Nash

Monday, December 16, 2013

Some Books for the Rest of Us

Not the New York Times "Best Books" of the Year

Of course you'll recognize Thomas Cole's "End of Empire." Not the benign millennium of utopian theorists, but the wild destruction of Revelations: the Seven Seals, the Anti-Christ, and the End of Days. Each December, when I dust the snow off the blue cylinder that is the New York Times on what happens to be the third Sunday of Advent, I shudder with the recognition that another year has passed during which the Taste-Makers in Manhattan have failed to review a single non-commercial book.  And then, since it's cold outside and I'm not properly dressed for the weather, my thoughts turn black. I think: it's the end of the age of print, the end of serious literature, the end of writing--and all that will be left (sure enough, as I thumb through the "Book Review") are the musing of Sarah Palin on Christmas, the political insights of Glenn Beck, and the continuation of the "Killing Of" series by Bill O'Reilly. 

But then I cheer up (now I'm inside, drinking coffee, the "Book Review" aglow in the fireplace) thinking of the wonderful books I've been lucky to come across and to read this year.  Here are just ten, novels and poetry. Every such list is as much exclusion as inclusion; in other words, I've left out ten or twenty I enjoyed just as much. 

--Christie Watson, Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away (Other Press)

--Maxime Kumin, Where I Live: New and Selected Poems (Norton)

--Hector Abad, Oblivion (FSG)

--Cees Nooteboom, The Following Story (Harvest Books)

--Imre Kertesz, Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Vintage) [All Imre Kertesz books]

--Jabra I. Jabra, The Ship (Lynne Rienner)

--Natsume Soseki, The Gate (New York Review)

--Agnieszka Kuciak, Distant Lands: An Anthology of Poets Who Don't Exist (White Pine)

--Muhammad Kamil al-Khatib, Just Like a River (Arris Books)

--Quian Zhongshu, Fortress Besieged (New Directions)

Happy Reading in 2014!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Informer by Liam O’Flaherty

There was a time when I saw the whole world through Irish eyes, stumbling through my days, all but drunk on the novels,  short stories, plays, and poetry of Joyce, Bowen, Beckett, Trevor, McGahern, Heaney, and Yeats. To crown this passion of mine, my father, as a college graduation gift to me, took me on a literary tour of the Emerald Isle. Starting in barbwired Belfast, which I had long wanted to see, we had worked our way south to Dublin, to Lady Gregory’s Abbey Theatre and to the fabled pubs of Seán O’Casey, Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, and J.P, Donleavy, then southward again to Joyce’s Martello Tower (Introibo ad altare Dei), where the stately, plump Buck Mulligan had stood at the stairhead with his bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed, to see for ourselves the snotgreen, scrotumtightening sea.

From there we'd continued south to Wexford, to Frank O’Connor’s Cork, and to the quaint seaport town of Youghal (where—so we’d been told by a priest at breakfast one morning, in a scene right out of Dubliners—parts of the 1956 movie Moby Dick had been filmed), then on to the wild west coast, to the spectacularly moody Dingle Peninsula and the Ring of Kerry. From there, taking our time, we’d  worked our way north to Galway and (the very goal of the trip for me) to the rocky Aran Islands, the starkly evocative setting of John Millington Synge’s best-known plays, The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea. I knew that the rocky, desolate islands, so vivid to me from my study of Synge’s plays, were also the birthplace of one of Ireland’s best-known writers, Liam O’Flaherty, whose novel, The Informer, I had just finished reading back in Cork.

Set in 1920’s Dublin in the wake of Bloody Sunday, during the Irish War of Independence, The Informer tells the spare, if deeply stirring tale of a down-and-out ex-revolutionary named Gyp Nolan, a hulking brute of a man who, in an act of desperation, informs on a friend and fellow Nationalist for the reward of twenty pounds, a betrayal that costs his friend his life. For the Revolutionary Organization (a militant, republican, vaguely communist faction based loosely on the IRA) there is no crime more heinous than that.

What ensues is an exquisite, at turns excruciatingly measured depiction of the means by which the Organization—that “thing that was full of plans, implacable, reaching out everywhere invisibly, with invisible tentacles like a supernatural monster”—uncovers the informer’s  identity then circles slowly round its prey, a ghastly unraveling which the reader devours with that impotence and fascination with which one watches the destruction of Oedipus at Thebes. As in Steinbeck’s novel Of Mice and Men, the central character Lenny of which bears a striking resemblance to O’Flaherty’s gormless hero, one knows from the start that Gyp Nolan is doomed—and dreads it. And still one reads on, propelled by the atmosphere, the tension, the prose, nearly sick with pity for this simple-minded man. 

Liam O’Flaherty (1896-1984), born Liam Ó Flaithearta,grew up in the small village of Gort na gCapall on one of the Aran Islands.  He attended Holy Cross and University College in Dublin before joining the Irish Guards.  While fighting  on the Western Front he suffered shell shock, resulting in two successive nervous breakdowns.  After the war he moved to the United States, where he lived in Hollywood for a time before returning to Dublin where he died at the age of 88.  Best known for his novels, Famine, The Sniper, and The Martyr, as well as for his  wickedly satirical tract, A Tourist’s Guide to Ireland, he was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for The Informer in 1925. 

Peter Adam Nash