A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche

Homage to Greeneland

Jonathan Gibbs
Monday 07 October 2013 18:08

This is a novel about the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when more than 800,000 people were killed over a period of 100 days. Although planned by a section of the Hutu regime as an explicit attempt to wipe out the country's Tutsi minority, the killing was informal and decentralised, carried out mostly by machete. Neighbours killed neighbours and, as intermarriage between Hutus and Tutsis was not uncommon, cousins killed cousins.

The novel can't do much in the face of atrocity performed on such an epic scale. Gil Courtemanche filters events through the eyes of Valcourt, a cynical Canadian journalist with all the surface faults and dormant nobility of a Greeneland hero. He sneers at the diplomats and aid-workers that hang out around the pool of the Hôtel des Mille-Collines in the capital, Kigali, tinkers with a documentary on the Aids epidemic he knows will never be shown, and falls in love with a local waitress, Gentille.

The massacres in Rwanda started in earnest on 6 April 1994, when the architects of Hutu Power blew up a plane carrying the country's president, Juvénal Habyarimana, and blamed the act on Tutsi rebels. On this day, Valcourt and Gentille are driving back into Kigali. She, although a Hutu, is tall, slim and pale-skinned like a Tutsi, and so faces extermination as a "cockroach". In the confusion of the impending disaster, Valcourt marries Gentille to protect her, but determines to stay put.

Courtemanche is a Canadian journalist, and had many friends in Rwanda (where he, too, made a documentary on Aids) though he was not in the country at the time of the massacres. This must have been a difficult book for him to write, and while he cannot know what it was like inside the hotel as the Hutu interahamwe militia swarmed outside, and the few UN soldiers sat on their hands, he clearly loves the country and knows it well.

Although the book does not shy away from the horrific violence, in the end it is less about the genocide than about that which it destroyed: the promise of a beautiful, once prosperous country, and the clear conscience of the international community that failed to intervene. Valcourt is certain where the blame lies, with "the Belgian priests who sowed the seeds of a kind of tropical Nazism here [promoting a divisive racial history for the Hutus and Tutsis], with Canada, with the United Nations who stood by and let negroes kill other negroes."

Although Courtemanche outlines their various crimes, to understand the story of Rwanda in all its complexity, you would be better served by Philip Gourevitch's brilliant and lucid non-fiction book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. That book is as suffused as this one with humanity, but doesn't mix it with sentimentality. Nor does it have an idealised 22-year-old heroine "whose name is as beautiful as her breasts, which are so pointed they abrade her starched shirt-dress", who swoons over the poetry of Éluard, and who says things like "Make me come again with words."

With this tragic and sometimes risible love affair taking up such a disproportionate amount of space in the narrative, Courtemanche's desire seems to be as much to write a book worthy of Camus or Greene, as to write one worthy of the memory of his dead Rwandan friends. In the latter instance I don't doubt he has succeeded. In the first, I'm afraid the answer's no.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments