Order for £13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
One Hundred Days, By Lukas Barfuss. Granta, £14.99
Wednesday 12 December 2012
Genocide is sombre subject matter. In Lukas Barfuss's novel – its title refers to the approximate duration of the Rwandan massacres in 1994, which claimed more than 500,000 lives – in spare, devastating prose, the Swiss author captures the tragedy's unstoppable momentum.
His protagonist, David Hohl (the surname means "hollow"), recounts his experience to an old schoolfriend when he returns to his Swiss homeland, broken and disillusioned. Hohl was guided towards development work by a strong sense of justice. Initially Rwanda appears a benign, sleepy country – "the land of eternal springtime" – but he discovers it is also a corrupt dictatorship supported by foreign aid. Hohl is befriended by a dissolute colleague, Missland, who claims that the Rwandans have a hidden side, "an ugly, violent one".
As the massacres start, Hohl makes the quixotic decision to stay in Kigali. Soon he is stranded in his official residence as the smell of corpses begins to rise over the city.
In the aftermath, Hohl agonises over international responsibilities for the disaster. "We were blinded by our sense of virtue," he says. The question of whether misuse of aid for malign ends can ever be stopped is profoundly uncomfortable. Hohl reflects that Hutu extremists exploited the infrastructure gifted by their overseas benefactors to expedite killings: "We installed telephones for them, telephones they used to order murders."
The novel (translated by Tess Lewis) delves into the disturbing complexities of cruelty. Hohl is appalled to find himself sexually aroused by his Hutu girlfriend Agathe's violent racism towards his Tutsi housekeeper. Can proximity to abusive behaviour degrade us and, possibly, make us complicit? The issue can be extended to the media coverage of genocide – as we consume it, are we motivated by morbid fascination, as well as moral outrage?
Barfuss's debut novel has explicit parallels with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. If he cannot rise to Conrad's genius, his writing is seriously good, dramatising horrific events in illuminating ways.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Frank Lampard's face drops when Holly Willoughby introduces him as a 'Man City legend'
- 2 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 Stephen Hawking endorses Labour in the General Election
Fast & Furious 7 overtakes Frozen to become 5th highest grossing movie of all time
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding