Review of ’A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali‘ by Gil Courtemanche, Canongate £14.99
Everyone has seen on television a packed football ground with 50,000 spectators crammed together. Imagine 16 such crowds, but with every spectator a corpse, a person hacked, bludgeoned or shot to death. That was Rwanda in 1984, when 800,000 were murdered.
Anyone who decides to write a novel about a subject so barbaric has taken on a special responsibility. A book that tries to explain why and how 800,000 Rwandans were butchered has shouldered a far more ambitious task than, say, a book about the marital infidelities of the Islington upper middle class.
Gil Courtemanche has tried to use a novel - and a love story - to help us understand the carnage and pitiless cruelty of those 100 days of horror.
He tells the story of Bernard Valcourt, a French-Canadian journalist working in Rwanda. Valcourt falls in love with Gentille, a member of the Hutu group who looks like a member of the Tutsi group. Her great-grandfather has reacted to a society where Tutsis are deemed superior by trying, through a series of arranged marriages, to make his children seem less and less like Hutus. The tragedy is that the ’success‘ of the project seals Gentille‘s fate as Tutsis become the scapegoats in a society which is falling apart.
Unlike very many accounts of the horror in Rwanda, Courtemanche does not just focus on the undoubted crimes of the leaders of the Rwandan regime. He also probes to find who assisted the regime to power, who armed it, who encouraged it to commit mass murder. Valcourt says he is ’trying to say what‘s hidden behind the bogeymen, the monsters, the caricatures, the symbols, the flags, the uniforms, the grand declarations that lull us to sleep with their good intentions. Trying to put names to the real killers sitting in offices at the presidential palace and the French embassy. They‘re the ones who draw up lists and give orders, and the ones who finance the operations and distribute the weapons.‘
The book also shows the way that the policies of the World Bank and its supporters rip up people‘s lives and produce the conditions where the unthinkable becomes almost normal.
After the killing, after the murderous regime has been destroyed, Victor returns to Rwanda. He gets his friends who have survived together. ’They had all been saved by Hutus who had not hesitated to run the direct risks to hide them.‘ So it was not simply a matter of one group against another.
Valcourt finds individual revenge will solve nothing. True revenge involves getting even with history, ’with Belgian priests who sowed the seeds of a kind of tropical Nazism here, with France, with Canada, with the United Nations who stood by and let negroes kill other negroes. They‘re the real murderers, but they‘re out of my reach.‘
There are also moving passages in the book that bring home the personal suffering behind the statistics of AIDS deaths. Such powerful and compassionate writing means that Courtemanche has nearly written a truly great novel.
It is marred by the appalling way that every woman in the book is described by the shape of her breasts and by her perceived sexual attractiveness. There are also moments when Courtemanche appears to think that the reader‘s interest can be maintained only by throwing in a bit of titillation, some sex episode which adds nothing and serves only to plunge the story backwards towards a far more ordinary and puerile way of writing. One low point is where a woman who is subjected to repeated rape muses upon the sexual technique of her assailant.
This is such a good book, about such a huge subject, that you yearn for it to be even better.