Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Love and Genocide

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, by Gil Courtemanche


"Redonner leur dignitĂ© a vos morts est un imperatif pour tout ĂȘtre 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)

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