‘Monsieur Valcourt,’ Cyprien [who is HIV positive] began, ‘I’m going to tell you what always gives you such a long, serious face. I’m going to be very straight with you because you know everything about me. You’ve got everything out of my head with your questions. You even know my sickness better than me, and you explain it to me. [...] What I want to say is, you get us thinking. We feel from your eyes what you see in your head. You see dead bodies, skeletons, and on top of that you want us to talk like we’re dying. I’ll start doing that a few seconds before I die, but until then I’m going to live and fuck and have a good time. [..]
Monsieur Valcourt, in your head I’m already dead and gone. And you’re right. A few months more, a year maybe. Every day I carry on, I’m stealing time from God, who’s waiting for me and doesn’t hold a few accidents against me. But you don’t stop wanting to live and do things right just because you’re dying.’
Between April and June 1994, about 800,000 Rwandans – mainly from the minority Tutsi tribe – were slaughtered, principally by the majority Hutus, in a genocide which shocked the world. Gil Courtemanche’s fictionalised account of what happened – for the characters in it are real, their fates actual, this is not entirely fiction nor entirely history – opens just before this, at the swimming pool at the Hotel Milles-Collines in Kigali. Most of the clientele are expatriates – French paratroopers, Belgian and Canadian aid workers, a UN general – but rich Rwandans are also present, and prostitutes, many HIV-positive, around whom the men hover like vultures. With grenades exploding in the city and militias maiming and murdering Tutsis, everyone including the foreigners knows what is coming. Valcourt, a Canadian journalist who has been trying and failing to set up a national television service, is repeatedly warned to leave the country. In love with the beautiful Gentille, who is a Hutu but looks like a Tutsi, he is told that his White skin won’t necessarily protect him because of his affinity with ‘cockroach’ Tutsis.
The tensions between Hutus and Tutsis have always existed, but were stoked by the Belgian and German colonialists who favoured the tall, slender and lighter-skinned Tutsis over the darker Hutus with their flatter noses, believing them to be racially superior. Gentille’s grandfather was Hutu but slim and pale; his father paid for his education and married him to a Tutsi in order to improve his lot. Since your ethnicity is handed down to you on your father’s side, Gentille remains officially a Tutsi, but her identity card will not protect her.
But the country is also being ravaged by AIDS, although this is officially denied. The dead can hardly be buried fast enough, the graveyards are not big enough. For someone like Cyprien, who knows that is HIV positive and that he’s on the Hutu death list, death is imminent: the only question is whether it will be a slow one from disease or a brutal yet quicker one from a Hutu machete.
This is not a novel to enjoy. Most of the men are predatory and cruel; a Belgian businessman throws a Rwandan prostitute out of his window as if she’s a bit of rubbish. Even the White doctors are only interested in their Rwandan patients insofar as they can profit from them by advancing their careers. Women are defined by how sexy they are; even Gentille, a principal character, is circumscribed by her beauty, her sexual allure and her Tutsi-like features. This and the author’s rather clinical tone of cold fury made it possible for me to read as far as I did because they created an emotional distance between me and the characters but, I have to admit, I didn’t finish this novel. I couldn’t. I read about half and then even though I had skipped over the most graphic violence, I reached a bit where what would happen to Cyprien’s orphaned children was described and I felt too sick to continue. I wasn’t surprised by the horror, it is what had put me off the book for so long, but I was appalled at how clearly it was known in advance by everyone – foreigners included – what was going to happen, and the level of atrocity with which the Tutsi were already accustomed to live.
It is hard to evaluate a book that mingles fiction and fact and that deals with such horrific material, and since I didn’t finish it my opinion is very limited. If you are interested, you can find a more useful review by Giles Foden in the Guardian. Let me know in the comments if you would like to have my copy.