Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

I found a review of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche on Amazon.
It is from The Washington Post's Book World.

Between April and July of 1994, some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis were systematically slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors in the tiny African country of Rwanda, the culmination of decades of institutionalized oppression. The killings were carried out neighbor-against-neighbor, by machete, gun or hand grenade, with torture and unimaginable brutality. Women, in particular, were singled out for terror equal to any crime against humanity in history. Although the Western powers were amply represented in Kigali by a robust U.N. peacekeeping force and armies of professional aid workers from France, Belgium and Canada, they made no intervention. To date, the U.N. Tribunal for Rwanda has convicted 12 Hutu leaders.

Since 1994, Rwanda has given new life to the defining questions of the post-Holocaust world. How did the perpetrators turn with such stupendous bloodlust on their neighbors? How did victims await their torture and death so helplessly? How did the West so incredibly fail to respond? To the huge literature of these questions Gil Courtemanche, a Canadian journalist, has added a novel.

If the "investigative novel" were a recognized category, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali would define many of its virtues. Courtemanche describes his book as a "chronicle and eyewitness report" and specifies that its "characters all existed in reality." Footnotes provide historical documentation and explanation, and a reader coming to this book from even a cursory reading of journalistic accounts of the genocide immediately recognizes the profound authenticity of Courtemanche's vision.

The "pool in Kigali" is that of the Hotel des Milles-Collines, a centrally located gathering place in the early spring of 1994 for "international experts and aid workers, middle-class Rwandans, screwed-up or melancholy expatriates of various origins, and prostitutes." Here, Valcourt, a Canadian journalist, watches with a jaundiced eye over the drama of local wheeling and dealing, diplomatic toadying, military corruption and AIDS-ridden whoring: the colorful and tragic texture of life in a corrupt post-colonial African republic. It's a predictable enough portrait but it is seen with quivering rage and documentary exactitude through Valcourt's eyes; in a very true picture of a foreign correspondent's perception, he is jaded enough to show the truth but still retain a boundless capacity for moral outrage. "From the Napalm in Vietnam," Courtemanche writes, "he had come away burned; from the Cambodian holocaust, speechless; from the Ethiopian famine, broken, exhausted, stooped." But Valcourt loves Rwanda, he loves its people, and somehow he cannot lose hope for this beautiful country.

In particular, Valcourt loves a virginal girl called Gentille, and his meditation on her body and -- eventually -- her sentimental and sensual education under his tutelage takes up all of his attention that is not devoted to a fine depiction of Kigali in the days before horror erupts. It is not an innovative meditation.

"Gentille, whose name is as lovely as her breasts, which are so pointed they abrade her starched shirt-dress, Gentille, whose face is more lovely still, and whose [expletive] is more disturbing in its impudent adolescence than anything else about her . . ." and so on. Against the backdrop of Rwanda's descent into what will soon become a world-changing orgy of blood, witnessed and catalogued by a host of bureaucrats, meticulously documented in Courtemanche's shocking exactitude, a January-May, black-white love affair prepares itself. Documentary horror is vividly juxtaposed against middle-aged fantasy, the one as compelling as the other is trite.

Courtemanche gives us an inside view into what divides journalism, a noble craft, from fiction, which is -- no matter how debased -- an art. As a love story, Sunday is quite a poor novel, stumbling over the pitfall, common to journalists who turn to fiction, of confusing fantasy with the imaginative truth of fiction. As such, Sunday reads consistently like a journalist's account of his own experience, fictionalized only by a sense, perhaps inflated, of that experience's romance.

And yet to criticize this book for its weaknesses as a novel in itself trivializes its mission. As the genocide inexorably engulfs Valcourt and Gentille, the truth of Courtemanche's political outrage comes to eclipse the falseness of his romance. By novel's end, Courtemanche will have used fiction's unique capacity to imaginatively adopt the viewpoints of others to show us the reality of what happened in Rwanda more intimately than journalism ever could.

Sunday is less a novel than a kind of fictionalized witnessing, and in the end where it goes wrong is less important than where it goes right. To read the book alongside, for example, Philip Gourevitch's investigation of the Rwandan genocide is to glimpse the limitations of journalism, even inspired journalism, next to the enormous moral depth of which fiction is capable. The cri de coeur at its center is so necessary, so heartfelt and so deeply convincing that I think it fair to say that one cannot consider one's awareness of the Rwandan Genocide sufficiently profound without reading this book, or something like like this book, just as one cannot consider a moral education in the Holocaust complete without reading the classic works of Holocaust fiction. In the end, nothing else matters about this remarkable book.

Reviewed by Neil Gordon
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved.


Blogger Cathie Lang said...

I think this would be an excellent book to read! It might also be interesting to see if there was anything comparable on the Balkan debacle - another place where the Western world's failure to get involved resulted in mass genocide. In the case of Sarajevo, Serbs, Croats and Bosnians had lived happily side by side and then.... how could that happen? How could the west let it happen? Anyway - I think the book that Kevin recommended would be an excellent addition to the list.

6:55 AM  
Blogger Stephenie said...

I'm for it! Let's add it for June.

12:28 PM  

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