A very well written and moving fiction cast in the form of an autobiographical account of a happy childhood in Burundi before the Rwandan genocide and the widespread violence and massacres in Burundi.The shocking story of a brutal end to "childhood" and subsequent "exile" in France by a man who has lost what it really means to have a country. Short,moving and compelling.
Small Country is a fairly short book, but one with a strong sense of its setting. At times I almost felt as though I was reading an autobiography because even cameo characters are vividly portrayed. Small Country does have elements in common with The Girl Who Smiled Beads (Clementine Wamariya) and The Running Man (Gilbert Tuhabonye) because of their Rwandan and Burundian war narratives, but I found this novel interesting because of its very different points of view towards the wars and resulting genocide.
Gabriel and his family live, essentially, in a white community so although his Maman is a black Rwandan woman, Gabriel's outlook is more guided by his white French Papa. The attitudes displayed by of most of the whites are frankly sickening and I quickly despised Papa for the way he spoke to Maman. This distancing of themselves from the country in which they live and in particular Papa's insistence on his children not learning about what is happening beyond his proscribed limits means Gabriel's childhood is even more of a fragile bubble than for most children I think, and the anticipation of that bubble bursting provides much of the tension within the story.
My only problem with this book, which is the same problem I had with Ponti (Sharlene Teo) is that Gabriel's story wasn't the most interesting one for me. Maman is a far more complex and conflicted character, yet she is often pushed aside by the author as well as by her family! However, overall, I enjoyed reading Small Country and look forward to discovering more of Faye's writing in due course.
The small country in question is Burundi, the lesser known twin to Rwanda. Like Rwanda, Burundi has ethnic tension between the Hutu and Tutsi population; unlike Rwanda the tensions have been kept on a slow boil rather than spilling over into mass genocide.
The novel is narrated by Gaby (Gabriel), a Burundian man now living in Europe, looking back on his childhood in Burundi. He is terribly homesick. He remembers a happy childhood, living in a middle class neighbourhood of Bujumbura, the Capital, with his French father and Rwandan mother. His friends are also mostly mixed race and middle class, identifying as African but not always accepted by the majority Burundians. Gaby's family had servants - some Hutu and some Tutsi - and travelled to see family in Rwanda. He scrumped mangoes from his neighbour's trees and sold them back to her.
In school, Gaby was successful, intelligent to the point of precociousness, politically astute. This is thrown into relief in the letters between himself and Laure, a French pen-friend allocated to him by his school. Laure has little interest in the world and seems to imagine Gaby sits on the ground with flies on his face, waiting for the next aid package to fall from the sky. In return for brief letters listing her possessions, Gaby send considered thoughts on the emergent democratic process in Burundi.
Which makes it quite jarring that this supposedly intelligent (and now adult) man narrates the story in simple language and staccato sentences. The voice is far cruder than the language of the transcribed letters he was writing at the age of ten. And while we are on the subject, his narration has a viewpoint problem; even as an adult narrating the story, he tells it as though he still had a child's awareness of the people around him and their actions; a child's unawareness of hidden agenda.
For the first half of the book, it was an interesting exercise in telling us that Africa is a good place and that our pre-conceptions of life in grinding poverty are wide of the mark. But in the second half, the action shifts to Rwanda and the genocide. This is still written in simple language but the imagery is clear, the emotions raw. It doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who has followed current affairs; indeed, it is played in a way that the reader feels a growing sense of horror as Gaby and his family misread the signs and underestimate the enormity of what is coming. The novel puts faces on the atrocity.
This second half of the novel redeems a really ordinary first half, but the overall point of view difficulties still remain problematic. The shift at the end back to adult Gaby feels awkward and weakens the overall impact. I know it is supposed to make us think about the plight of the refugee and consider that refugees often wish they could have stayed at home; they do not feel like lottery winners who have landed up in rich countries. But this is not the strong note on which to leave a novel that has been in the abyss of genocidal Kigali.
Worth reading - and it is a short novel - but a better editor might have turned this into something special.
In this emotionally charged book, Gaël Faye carefully navigates through a modern time where human depravity almost touches the bottom of the abyss. Unfortunately, it seems our nature and society will always throw up cases of cruelty but when a systematic national directive incites genocide, can we continue to describe this as human? In 1994 the racial tensions between Hutu and Tutsi made global news for the brutal massacre of Tutsis by Hutus in Rwanda and to a lesser extent in Burundi.
“The war between Tutsis and Hutus … is it because they don’t have the same land?” “No, they have the same country.” “So … they don’t have the same language?” “No, they speak the same language.” “So … they don’t have the same God?” “No, they have the same God.” “So … why are they at war?” “Because they don’t have the same nose.”
Ten-year-old Gaby (Gabriel) lives with his French father, Rwandan mother (soon to be separated) and sister Ana, in Bujumbura, in Burundi, which borders Rwanda. In the 1990s Gaby and his 4 other friends, Gino, Armand and the twins, spend time doing what all friends do, they argue, they play, they pick mangoes (not always honestly) and sell to make money, and use an old VW Combi as their HQ. They start to get that uneasy feeling when adults get worried and start speaking in whispers when attitudes change and anxiety creeps into everyday life.
How long can they be shielded from the fear, brutality and atrocities that are escalating in Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda?
NOT FOREVER – [silence ... tears]
“This poisonous lava, the thick flow of blood, was ready to rise to the surface once more. We didn’t know it yet but the hour of the inferno had come, and the night was about to unleash its crackle of hyenas and wild dogs.” Innocence is lost!
Gaël Faye has written a really heartfelt, moving and inspiring book dealing with the loss of innocence and dreams when humanity descends to unimaginable depths of depravity. The effects on family, especially those that have witnessed or narrowly escaped the killings, is compassionately narrated in the story. This is an absolutely excellent debut, wonderfully well written and deserves to be read, lest we forget. When asked of Hutu militia why do you kill with machetes when you have guns, the answer was, bullets cost them [victims] money and they are poor.
Many thanks to Random House UK, Vintage Publishing and NetGalley, for an ARC version of the book in return for an honest review.
A book set in Burundi at the time of the Burundi and Rwandan massacres of the 1990s is not going to be comfortable reading and this book certainly bears that out. But the writing is poetical and honest, allowing the horror to develop naturally out of a child's memories that are at first almost blissful. A very fine piece of work that made me want to read more by the author.