[Here] stands the Hôtel des Mille-Collines, with its habitual clientele of international experts and aid workers, middle-class Rwandans, screwed-up or melancholy expatriates of various origins, and prostitutes. 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. [...]
Farther down, almost in the underbelly of the city, stands the red brick mass of the Church of the Holy Family, disgorging the poor in their Sunday best into crooked mud lanes bordered by houses made of the same clay. Small red houses – just far enough away from the swimming pool not to offend the nostrils of the important – filled with shouting, happy children, with men and women dying of AIDS and malaria, thousands of small households that know nothing of the pool around which others plan their lives and, more importantly, their predictable deaths.
There can be many reasons - understanding, justice, revenge, closure - why people seek to fictionalise horrific events, rewriting traumatic memory as story, with identifiable causes and characters and catharsis. It also, of course, carries with it many risks: of trivialisation, of simplification, of fetishisation. One of the most horrific such events in recent history is the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when somewhere between 500,000 and 1 million people, primarily of the country's Tutsi minority, were massacred by militia groups and civilians from the Hutu majority.
The genocide has been the subject of a number of dramatisations since it happened; like all of these, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (2000; tr. from French by Patricia Claxton, 2003), by French-Canadian journalist and documentarian Gil Courtemanche (1943-2011), raises a host of difficult issues about the methods and ethics of storifying real-life tragedy. Not least, the use of real people's lives and violent deaths as a form of entertainment, however worthy the aim. Courtemanche puts these issues front and centre in his preface to the English translation:
This novel is a novel. But it is also a chronicle and an eyewitness report. The characters all existed in reality, and in almost every case I have used their real names. The novelist has given them lives, acts and words that summarize or symbolize what the journalist observed while in their company. If I have taken the liberty of inventing a little, I have done so the better to convey the human quality of the murdered men and women. Those who planned and carried out the genocide are identified in this book by their true names. Some readers may attribute certain scenes of violence and cruelty to an overactive imagination. They will be sadly mistaken.
At its heart, this is what fiction is about: a means to imagine our way into the heart of the incomprehensible. But surely, surely Courtemanche cannot have been oblivious to the irony of retelling a tragedy in which people died precisely because of their reduction to symbols - the hated Tutsi enemy, the 'cockroaches' - by turning real individuals into symbolic characters? His attempt to "speak for you", as he calls it in the dedication at the start of the book, is undoubtedly well intentioned and the result is powerful - how not, with such a subject? - but it is difficult not to think of it as a second removal of the victims' agency.
This tension is most apparent - or was to me - in the character of Gentille. Gentille is the beautiful, innocent Rwandan woman, of mixed Hutu/Tutsi heritage, who symbolises - that word again - all the agonies her country goes through. Here is how she is introduced to us, through the eyes of our narrator, French-Canadian documentarian Bernard Valcourt:
And 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 ass is more disturbing in its impudent adolescence than anything else about her, Gentille, who is so embarrassed by her beauty she has never smiled or spoken an unnecessary word, Gentille cries.
I'm going to give you a moment to appreciate the many levels of "disturbing" present in the authorial decision to a) lasciviously describe various of Gentille's body parts before getting anywhere near her personality and opinions, and b) attribute some sort of human mood to one of those parts as if it had a mind and will of its own, and a relationship with the men who ogle it, independent of the woman it belongs to. (Her backside was just so impudent! Who cares if her mouth was saying no, eh?) That we're then vaguely invited to sympathise with Gentille as a human being because entitled onlookers - like, oh, the narrator - objectify her regardless of anything she herself says or does (indeed, even while self-confessedly aware of how uncomfortable it makes her) cannot undo the damage wrought by the rest of the paragraph, or the overwhelming urge I felt to put the book down and go and wash the creepiness off my skin.
Now, it is entirely possible that narrator Valcourt was intended to function as a stand-in for Courtemanche; if he was, it's interesting that the author gives his own fictional avatar a new name, but does not do the same for the symbolic depictions of his Rwandan friends (many of whom are name-checked in the dedication). Absent an authorial declaration to that effect, though, I'm loathe to speculate too far or too definitely, and it isn't clear from the preface if Courtemanche was actually a witness to the events he describes/imagines through Valcourt. My inference is that he wasn't, nor is he claiming to have been; the novel is an attempt to understand, in the aftermath, what happened during that time to people he knew. So Valcourt may not be Courtemanche. A line in the dedication, however, indicates that Gentille, at least, was real ("To Gentille, who served me eggs and beer and could be dead or alive, if only I knew"). It also strongly implies that the real Gentille was not especially well known to Courtemanche, and that her story is more of an authorial invention than those of the other people he discusses.
For me, at least, the combination of this line in the dedication and the preface's declaration about people as symbols only adds more problematic overtones to the novel's treatment of Gentille. The slow, detailed objectification of Gentille quoted above broadens out into an idolisation and fetishisation of Gentille as Rwandan Everyvictim - and more particularly as Rwandan EveryFemaleVictim, whose eventual rape and sexualised mutilation is described at length - by way of an affair with Valcourt, the white, western man whose efforts to save her from the brutality of her own country prove futile, and whose angst about this gradually starts to consume the novel.
Put another way: this is, dear readers, the Rwandan genocide retold as White Man's Pain.
Well, I suppose making it about you is one way to try to understand these events, and explain and enact white western guilt over the widely-reported abject failure of white western authorities both inside and outside Rwanda to even come up with a coherent policy or message about what was going on. Courtemanche does, indeed, skewer the complacency and incompetence of the UN's representatives in Rwanda, and of everyone who failed to acknowledge just how "predictable" the massacres were. Of the Canadian general in charge, his words drip with scorn, leavened with a touch of sympathy for the impossible problem of trying to think well of everyone, and thus avoid having to take sides, and in the process face your relative powerlessness:
Unassuming, apprehensive, ineloquent and naïve, just like Canada. […] Of war, he knows what he has seen on CNN, read in a few books, and experienced through military exercises he has directed, and invasions of several countries he has conducted on paper. About Africa finally, he knows its colour and several of its smells to which he has still not become accustomed, although he dextrously wields canisters of 'Quebec spruce' deodorant and douses himself with Brut, an eau de cologne highly prized by the military and the police. Yet behind his salesman’s moustache and sad eyes, the major general is an honest man and a good Catholic. He is deeply touched by the obvious piety of the dictator and his family and the frequent company they keep with bishops. These are upright people. Their few excesses ought to be ascribed to a certain African atavism rather than the insatiable venality and bloodthirsty cruelty they are so maliciously accused of by all those ambitious Tutsis who pretend to be playing by the rules of democracy.
Courtemanche sketches a similarly nuanced - but more forgiving - portrait of one Father Louis, local representative of a major French Catholic aid organisation, explaining how Louis' attempts to stay and do at least some good (offering food and medical care, distributing condoms in a region wracked with AIDS) means not speaking out about the abuses he witnesses, thus appearing to countenance what is happening, and being claimed and politicised by all sides.
Some of the Rwandans, too, are treated as real, complicated human beings rather than simply faceless angelic victims. (The killers, not so much.) There is the wonderful taxiwoman Émérita, whose joy for life and particularly for sex ("You know, I found out why making love's a sin, so it's forbidden. Making love's dangerous, it gets you wanting more, it gets you wanting to live forever. […] Freedom, that’s what making love is") is refreshing in an environment where sex mostly seems to be something men inflict upon women. She refuses to wallow in anxiety about what might come; "each moment stolen from fear is a paradise", she says, shortly before she is killed for standing up to the militia at a checkpoint. Since, by that point in the novel, we have seen that Tutsis stopped by Hutu checkpoints will invariably be killed whatever they do, her choice to meet death with defiance is inspiring.
Blunt, friendly Cyprien displays a similar joie de vivre, although as it turns out his has a much darker undercurrent. He is a Hutu who makes an exception for Tutsi women, amid his casual anti-Tutsi prejudice:
He had never liked Tutsis. He thought they were arrogant and laughed too much, but he adored their women’s slender waists that he could girdle with his two great hands, their milk-chocolate skin and their breasts as firm as juicy pomegranates. That was his downfall in the eyes of his Hutu neighbours and friends.
Cyprien is used to give us insight into Hutu plans and motives ("That's our killers going by [...] You hear what they're singing? 'We're going to exterminate them'. Gentille, they're talking about you and anyone who touches you, knows you or loves you. […] Get away from this lousy country. Hate comes to you with birth. They teach it to you in the cradles they rock you to sleep in"), while remaining human enough to be an equal-opportunities lecher. And yet we also learn - just before he and his wife are tortured and killed, in a truly, truly harrowing sequence - that he has regularly been going to the market to pick up women for unprotected sex, uncaring whether he is spreading disease to them because everything is going to hell anyway and "A cock was kinder than a machete". When it is pointed out to him that he may well be killing these women, he reflects that it's fine because "they laughed and squealed when he patted their bums", so I guess that's all right then, and I'm sure he discussed with them beforehand all the infections he's carrying. In this case, I'm pretty sure we're not meant to condone Cyprien's actions, but rather to see them as a symptom of a world gone nihilistically crazy; it did, nonetheless, mean that I was rather more upset by his wife's fate than I was by his, a few pages later.
So there is much to admire here in the sense of nuance and humanity. But Gentille remains the central Rwandan character, and the emotional heart of the story. Thus the portrayal of her becomes the novel's touchstone, and - as it turns out - a serious stumbling-block to its success.
Courtemanche very occasionally gives us Gentille's point-of-view, although notably these interludes mostly consist of Gentille thinking about how nice Valcourt is. In one, Gentille reflects on how she actually really like Valcourt, just after Valcourt has got himself all offended at the fact that she's willing to sleep with him - rather than all the other men who drool over her impudent arse - because he's a westerner and therefore represents a possible escape route from Rwanda. In another, she luxuriates in how her relationship with Valcourt makes her feel "honoured, admired and loved, no longer merely a body, an object found to be beautiful", which is best described as a sweet-naturedly charitable interpretation of Valcourt's feelings towards her. Towards the end, there is also a lengthy passage in which Gentille keeps a diary narrating her extended captivity and abuse at the hands of a Hutu official.
What makes this more problematic, I think, than even the usual issues surrounding writing about real events through a fictional lens, is the unavoidable power imbalance - in terms of race, gender, and socio-economic status - between both real-Gentille and Courtemanche, and between fictional-Gentille and Valcourt. Courtemanche is not merely an author speaking for a friend: he is a man writing about a woman who is raped; he is a western man discussing post-colonial African politics; he is a white western man of sufficient means and influence to travel the globe making documentaries for international audiences attempting to ventriloquise the experiences of a poor woman of colour whose feelings and agency are only barely acknowledged by the man who claims to love her. And he chooses to make her, ultimately, the chief tragic refrain (with really great tits) within the symphony of his white, western, male narrator.
I don't mean to suggest that white western guys can't ever write about African women (or vice versa), because imaginative empathy is impossible, or there are some ways of seeing the world that are completely irreconciliable, or something. No. Rather, I'm saying that I think that is is important, when (re)imagining this sort of story - which is not, after all, merely a story - to bear in mind whose voices are generally heard, and indeed amplified, and whose are (for whatever reason) generally not. It is important to bear in mind the history that underlies European and North American discourses about Africa, and men's discourses about women. It is important to bear in mind that an episode in which women - both those who died and those who survived - were routinely raped as a part of the aggressors' strategy to utterly crush the Tutsi "cockroaches" might not be best approached through the often sentimental but nonetheless pervasive sexualised pedestal-ing of one such woman by the novel itself.
So: for all its admirable aims and its boundless well of sympathy for the victims of the genocide, I ultimately found A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali to be a strange, self-undermining mixture of a novel. On the one hand, there is righteous, justified outrage at the shocking violence recounted, and at how much of it might have been foreseen and perhaps prevented; on the other hand, there is so much queasy objectification of the Rwandan woman used to symbolise how unjust it all is that the outrage carries a sour aftertaste, and the suspicion lurks that all this horror is just an exotic backdrop to the sad tale of a man finding his motivation in the brutal rape and murder of his filmed-in-soft-focus girlfriend. You know, again.