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AIDS...corruption...massacres: better as reportage than fiction
on 2 March 2009
Set in Rwanda during one of the darkest chapters in human history the tone of this novel-reportage is relentlessly sombre. I am not sure what was gained by turning this event into quasi-fiction when the author was an eye-witness reporter plainly intent on spewing forth vitriol against those he felt were part responsible for the genocide by their inaction; namely, the UN, France and Canada, and the expat community, whose cynicism appears here as an ugly form of post-colonial colonialism. Why do I feel that it does not really work as a novel? To begin with it works well as reportage; a bleak, detailed description of the horrors of human evil without constraint set against a background of a sexually transmitted plague already laying low a third of the population and rampant, debilitating corruption. It is a steady description of an escalating descent into the maelstrom of hell. Throughout there is a dark and heavy foreboding as individual murders and rapes turn into multiple incidents and then into mass rapes and massacres, all the while being tolerated with a shrug of the shoulders by European workers and military as something that just happens in Africa. There are too genuine attempts to understand and explain the complicated relationship between the two ethnic groups - the Hutu and the Tutsi - and what led to the level of hatred that saw men butcher each other at a rate unequalled since humans first appeared on the planet.
However, as a novel it loses something, and certainly as a love story. The principal character is Bernard Valcourt, a Canadian journalist who for reasons unclear (other than the usual clichés of beautiful African sunsets and skies) loves the country. He falls in love with Gentille, a Hutu woman who has the misfortune to resemble a Tutsi. But their relationship seems more like lust on his part and despair on hers. I have good grounds for saying that because not only are there endless stereotypical descriptions throughout of the secondary sexual characteristics of African women but of African sexuality in general, every act - whether love or rape - told in lurid, explicit detail. This has the effect of diminishing the sincerity of the central character (and by extension the author) and casting him as yet another prurient expat. I'm afraid that is the tone throughout the book; the exploitation of suffering for almost pornographic entertainment. Maybe I am being a little harsh and no doubt many will disagree.
Perhaps the Rwandan genocide is beyond fictionalisation. In fact, it is beyond words and, like the trenches or the Holocaust, requires an extension of the vocabulary to truly reproduce the magnitude of the horrors and to grasp at unimaginable human motivations. And, despite all the (justified) anger against the inaction of the humanitarian services and the total impotence of Christianity in the face of its greatest challenge, the blame ultimately falls squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrators. They should be hunted to the ends of the earth.