How to resurrect Rwanda

by Tze Ming Mok / 13 March, 2004
A SUNDAY AT THE POOL IN KIGALI, by Gil Courtemanche (Text, $35).

This story is fiction but the historical events and the characters are all real - a fine blueprint for the kind of novel that journalists can write. And it bears the bitter mark of Rwanda's well-told genocide: its truisms feel too true to diminish into clichés, even if they usually are clichés.

Courtemanche's alter ego in the novel is Valcourt, also a Québecois journalist. He casts his grim eye across the stagnant pool of the Mille-Collines Hotel in Kigali, gathering in his sights the side-shifters, the marked dissidents, the blandly complicit UN and those dying with laughter. The prostitutes' review of the sexual behaviours of the foreign corps is a hilarious précis of neocolonialism, and a pre-emptive strike on the plot. "The Canadians are nice ... They seem to worry about our future as they fondle our breasts ... They try to disguise a f--- as a love story."

"Dead people have the right to live," the protagonist asserts. But playing the tape backward, à la Amis's Time's Arrow, or Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5, doesn't fit the Camusian sensibilities of Courtemanche. He flattens down his ears to pace through our generation's latest mass extermination, from beginning to end. The plot is a threepenny romance stripped utterly raw, and thrown all to hell. It grows into a testament, a performance of resurrection. As an elegy, it glows.

Kigali on the brink of April 1994 is stunningly and painfully re-created as a city enraptured by the carnivalesque: the daze of flesh, by bloodlust. Sex and death collide in ceremonial, reverential set pieces. The hotel prostitutes gather to give a dying AIDS sufferer one last holy orgasm. The HIV-positive pool man sodomises a pregnant diplomatic wife in the toolshed, until her waters break with delight. An abductee hopes futilely for pleasure from rape before the machete comes down. These could be outrageous juxtapositions if this weren't already a genocide.

Valcourt's lover Gentille is (of course) the story of all Rwanda ("the land of a thousand hills"). She is officially Hutu, but her long-limbed body - betraying the Tutsi genes her ancestors hankered after in the colonial era - will now mark her for death. "In her is the end of breeding." I'm quoting Ezra Pound, although it is a volume of Eluard that Valcourt brings from Canada, which provides Gentille with her melancholy refrain: "At absurd rapes I laugh/I am still in flower." Her highly wrought sexual objectification is unnerving, but you can forgive Courtemanche this, eventually.

Their romance is swaddled in a sense of idyll - the shade of an Edenic tree by the pool is the city's last patch of peace. Outside, the lists are being drawn and the militia gathered, and Valcourt's joyous fatalism takes the wheel to drive Gentille to ruin. For he has fallen in love with Rwanda, and asks her to stay there with him, as though he had not been in Cambodia, nor known what Sidney Schanberg's thirst for the authentic life did to the faithful Dith Pran.

This, too, is somehow forgivable. What else can you do when you're a journalist who leaves before the genocide, and nothing is left of your friends but their dead names? What can you do but imagine a reality in which you stay as a witness, and find a reason why you would have done so? And what else could that reason be?

Pulled by this thirst for life and pleasure in the midst of a killing field, an absurd grandeur staggers out of the shadows, up a thousand hills.


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