Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Sunday at the pool in Kigali

I'm far less prone to misanthropic flare-ups in Guatemala than in London. Somehow, the more messed-up the environment the easier it is for me to feel the human truth all around me, often quite literally in the gut.

Whilst I have no first-hand experience of 90s Rwanda, the topic has in a sense reached out to me off the printed page, recommending itself as one of the most far-fetchedly messed-up environments the twentieth century had to offer. Here truly was a place and time in history where hardly anyone was prepared to give their fellow man the benefit of the doubt.

My previous second-hand experiences of this murderous moment were two works of non-fiction, one by young American journalist called Philip Gourevitch and the other by Poland's great roving reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski. Then there was Terry George's film Hotel Rwanda. Each offered a slightly different perspective on the origins of the genocide of 1994 which swept away over a million lives in just over a month.

Only a full-time misanthrope could dismiss Gil Courtemanche's first novel. (No doubt a number of critics will have deployed the adjective "urgent" to capture its message.) The pool in the title is the one at the Milles Collines, the Sabena-owned establishment at the heart of Hotel Rwanda, but here shown to be a far more tainted location than the civilised bourgeois sanctuary from the barbarism of Africa managed by Don Cheadle's character in the film. (It reminded me of a similar hotel and pool in Oliver Stone's Salvador.)

Courtemanche, a renowned French-Canadian journalist and award-winning film-maker, decided to fictionalise his experiences in Kigali when he came across this description of the poolside area in his notes: "All around the pool and hotel in lascivious disorder lies the part of the city that matters, that makes the decisions, that steals, kills, and lives very nicely thank you." At the beginning of the story hotel guests and visitors can here the sounds of escalating violence outside the compound, "just far enough from the pool for it to be somewhere else." Soon however, there will be no somewhere else.

The key protagonist is a Canadian TV journalist named Bernard Valcourt, a man waiting in Central Africa "for a scrap of life to excite him and make him unfold his wings." His scrap turns out to be Gentille, a beautiful young waitress in the hotel who will become his wife on the eve of the cataclysm. Touchingly, both appear to sense that their relationship is somehow too good to be true, and frankly they may have been on to something - Courtemanche's Rwanda is such a dark place that the pure light of their love struck me as a tad artificial.

I found myself identifying strongly with one aspect of Valcourt's predicament- his recognition that while this land he has ended up in has a full house of intractable Third World problems and nurtures great evil, of both the malicious and the misguided sort, he can't help but feel that be belongs there. Crucially, he renounces the opportunity to leave when he can, making plans to put down roots just when it seems most unwise to do so. This decision, he insists, "does not imply acceptance of the idiocy and inhumanity that the country nurtures." And yet, he seems to have no ready answer to the Rwandan who bluntly asks him "Don't you get a feeling sometimes that you're living off our death?"

When all the other journalistic accounts have gone out of print or been absorbed into historical theses, this one may well remain freely available in our mainstream bookshops − the lasting public memory of these events outside of Africa. From a literary standpoint there is nothing wrong with this at all − the novel is a stunning achievement in that respect.

Yet to my mind, from an interpretational perspective, Courtemanche has a better overall grip of the build-up − as much about the scourge of AIDS as it is about deadly identity politics − than the climax, where his observations appear to drift from complexity towards inconclusiveness; confusion even. If you come to this book knowing nothing of the background to the bloodshed you will not necessarily come away from it with any lasting insights. Whilst Courtemanche suggests that "primitive nature" can suddenly take the form of a tornado, mass murder requires the intervention of men who "create the conditions that send it over the top." And, as I mentioned in the previous post, he also seems to endorse the view expressed by one character that the Rwandan genocide is just a poor-man's version of the Holocaust: they used machetes because they couldn't afford gas chambers.

Every account of Rwanda '94 that I have read has played down the physical differences between Hutu and Tutsi. For Kapuscinski the idea that real differences of ancestry existed between what he calls two 'castes' in the same tribe, was a nonsense invented by venomous Rwandan academics associated with the Hutu government. In Hotel Rwanda there is a scene where a barman tells Joaquin Phoenix's character that the distinction was made up by the Belgians and we are shown how the two girls sitting at the bar next to him, one Hutu, one Tutsi "could be sisters." Courtemanche however, suggests that the key traits could be read on the faces of most Rwandans. Gentille has a Hutu ID card, but her great great grandfather aspired to marrying his family into the then dominant group and as a result she has the tall, thin frame and the café-au-lait skin that would mark her out as a Tutsi at any of the roadblocks manned by machete waving interhamwe.

I also felt that Valcourt's reactions on his return to Kigali once the storm has abated seem unnaturally phlegmatic. On the last page are told that he has remained in Rwanda and works for the rights of Hutu's accused of genocide. All very noble, but somehow not that plausible. Perhaps when he sat down to write this novel Courtemanche was torn between what his head and his heart were telling him about the events it gives testimony to.

As ever though, the French come out of this very badly. Courtemanche's footnotes reveal how they evacuated only their non-African Embassy staff, leaving the remainder to be massacred.

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