Most literary works about Rwanda, both fiction and non-fiction, focus on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. There are very few books which don’t have those atrocities at the centre of their narratives (although I have read a couple: Roz Carr’s memoir and Gaile Parkin’s feel-good novel). However, it’s not at all surprising as these events are still haunting every Rwandan – I don’t think there is one national of this country who was not affected by it. Everyone here lost someone in the 1990s. Canadian journalist and author Gil Courtemanche arrived in Rwanda shortly after the Genocide but in his first novel, first published in Canada in 2000 (the English translation came out in 2003), he managed to recreate the horrible events in such a convincing way that it reads like a very moving memoir.
Meet Valcourt – Courtemanche’s alter ego, a disillusioned and bitter Canadian journalist and documentary maker who arrives in Kigali shortly before the Genocide begins, and stays at the Mille Collines hotel. That’s the famous Hotel Rwanda (although it didn’t feature in the film itself). Valcourt makes cynical observations regarding his fellow hotel guests and visitors: blasé diplomats, their wives cheating on them with young Rwandan men, development workers massaging their egos (“most of them were living a life of great adventure here, with perks of prestige, power and freedom they had never known before”), French paratroopers ogling local prostitutes, rich Rwandans showing off their fancy clothes straight from Paris… But one person in particular becomes the centre of Valcourt’s universe: Gentille, one of the waitresses at the hotel. She looks Tutsi, and for generations her family have been hiding the fact that they were all actually Hutu (as being Tutsi meant having more privileges, access to education, etc.) However, this is now turning against her as the violence against the Tutsi beings to break out. Valcourt is completely infatuated with Gentille but their love affair develops slowly as he is too overwhelmed by his desire for her, to the point that he is unable to make love to her. She, in turn, takes time to believe that he really loves her and really wants to be with her and live in her country, so different from his. Theirs is a romantic relationship, especially when Valcourt reads Paul Éluard’s poems to Gentille. They do eventually marry but their happiness doesn’t last long. When they try to escape, Gentille gets kidnapped and is never seen again. We find out about her fate at the end of the book when Valcourt finds her notes from the time of her ordeal.
This is in a way a historical novel as many characters were real people. The book is dedicated “[t]o my Rwandan friends swept away in the maelstrom (…) To a few unsung heroes still living (…) Finally, to Gentille, who served me eggs and beer and could be dead or alive, if only I knew. I have tried to speak for you. I hope I have not failed you”. Even though Courtemanche did not witness the atrocities first hand, he conveys the experiences of Rwandan people in a very vivid and realistic way. The book reads like a cross between a memoir and a journalistic account, making the whole story even more poignant. The author clearly got to know Rwandans and their country very well, and his affection and pain for them shows on every page. However, Courtemanche is also brutal in his observations of human nature and our basic instincts. Sex and death are ever-present, and there are quite a few disturbing scenes, but I didn’t find any of it distasteful. In fact, the scene where Valcourt’s friend is dying of AIDS and receives his last orgasm from a prostitute in the presence of his mother, brother and close friends, is both shocking and a bit ludicrous, but at the same time very moving. “Even rich people in the United States don’t have beautiful deaths like this”, says the dying man. I found it hard not to shake my head in disbelief, smile a bit, and feel extremely sad, all at the same time.
Even though I’ve read a lot about the Genocide, there is no way to “get used to” this subject. In his novel, Courtemanche doesn’t shy away from realism and harsh observations (both in relation to the events themselves and to the disgraceful reaction of the international community) so if you find it difficult to read about such heavy topics, you might struggle here. The fact that it’s a fictionalised account doesn’t make it any easier. Still, it’s a very good book and well worth reading. It received a number of awards and nominations, and was made into a critically-acclaimed film under the same title. It certainly is an important and valuable voice in the discourse about the Genocide in Rwanda.