27 December 2007

Gil Courtemanche, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, 2000

UN representative Ahmedou Ould Abdullah once famously remarked about Burundi, “What this country really needs is a psychiatrist.” This comment could equally have applied to Rwanda, the only difference between the related mass-killings being the tribal origins of each country's population majority. After reading A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali it’s readily apparent that psychiatry is as nothing compared to what Rwanda actually needed – intervention – and was summarily ignored by the international community in those horrific years of the mid-1990s. One naturally approaches a book like this with some trepidation, though the path is smoothed by the fact that as the tension inevitably builds so does another thread, that of a highly unusual love story, without which the book would read as little more than another example of Western voyeurism of other people’s catastrophes. This is as much a tale of love and sex as it is of death.

Courtemanche, a French-Canadian journalist, thinly masquerades himself as the character Bernard Valcourt, a journalist who is in Rwanda to set up a TV station. He lives in Kigali's Hôtel des Milles-Collines, a grand affair which similarly attracts both Rwandan high- and low-life, and whose pool serves as a talking shop for the Hutu atrocities which everyone knows are just around the corner but no one has any idea how to prevent. Pivotal to the tale is the story of Gentille, a Hutu hotel worker who appears Tutsi in every way, but despite the ‘proof’ of her identity card she is marked for death because of her elegant Tutsi appearance. It is Valcourt’s fate to fall in love with her. This is where the historical roots of the violence are revealed as the cause for the genocide itself, with Hutu animosity to the ruling Tutsi minority validated by outdated but still prevalent colonial attitudes which defined the country’s social strata along racist lines, the lighter skinned and more ‘refined’ Tutsis being considered by Belgian colonists to be superior to the darker Hutus.

Rwanda was already an Aids-ravaged country before this other kind of self-inflicted hell-on-earth descended upon it; Rwandans are depicted as living with such rich intensity that impulsive gratification was always going to win out over long-term social planning. Rwandans are as susceptible to the powerful distractions of sex, status and political vengeance as everyone else, but sex is often the strongest driving force behind people’s actions throughout the book: it provides the reasons, the excuses and the salvation for many of the book’s real-life characters. This includes one totally bizarre death-bed scene which, like almost every other event related, Courtemanche claims to have actually happened, a claim it is often hard to doubt.

There is also plenty of j’accuse here, with much of it directed right back at the author; most of the book’s heroes and villains real identities are kept, names are named and mostly shamed and Courtemanche, in the guise of Valcourt, examines closely his own failings, his own culturally-ingrained journalistic detachment, his inability to react to the horrors until it is too late. In retrospect Courtemanche is clearly uncomfortable about it, because what does emerge is the truth of how meaningless a racial identity becomes in the hands of those eager to take it away from you in the bloodiest way possible, and he often questions how friends could still be alive if he had acted with more courage. Courtemanche/Valcourt’s story involves the reader morally, though the moral stance a Western reader is invited to take is also cleanly stripped down and exposed as the complacency it really is. Instead, Courtemanche wants you feel as if you have lived through these events yourself, making this book the necessary catharsis it obviously was for him, and one which will also negate any uncomfortable feeling of voyeurism. Even his cynicism is often an intelligent cut above the rest. Highly recommended.   PY

  A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali was a finalist for the 2003 Governor General’s Literary Award.

No comments: