Chory's Reviews > A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche
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's review
Feb 13, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: read-for-school, books-of-genocide
Recommended to Chory by: Andrew Cohen
Recommended for: Anyone interested in African culture or the Rwandan genocide.
Read in February, 2008

While it would be easy to see Courtemanche's choice to present the work as a novel rather than a memoir or a piece of literary journalism (the easiest choice, after all, what with his being a journalist) as risky, the effect on the reader's understanding—with the narrative presented as a work of fiction—is an increased grasp of what he calls the "human quality of the murdered men and women (preface)." In describing scenes to which the journalist could not have been witness (as in chapter two with his description of Gentile's great grandfather's selective breeding program for his sons), the author enables the reader a necessary means of comprehending a historical perspective.
Through the foil for himself of Bernard Valcourt, Courtemanche evades the pitfalls inherent in any story of witness—a sort of woe-is-me, voyeurism, or a desensitizing, anesthetic, and over-the-top exhibition of the ills of humanity which leaves the reader ashamed, but also unable to reconcile his own humanity with what he has read. Bernard allows readers to identify with all of the other characters both through his detached Canadian tone and his observantly poetic relation of the story. In a way, it feel as though the author has sensed a need to separate himself from the pain of the topic—the loss of his love, his incapacity to change the situation, and the culpability of his nation—in order that readers can understand the gravity of the situation.
Whereas Primo Levi, being himself a survivor, necessarily produced a work of memoir, it would chance disrespect for Courtemanche to presume to tell the tale of survival from an "I was there" focus. Instead, the character of Valcourt serves as a vehicle for the reader to place himself beside the pool (something we are unable to do in memoir, being author-focused as it is) and look through the eyes of one of his own kind: A white, male, westerner, baffled by a society he does not—and perhaps cannot—understand.
Much of the meat of the story, the tender lines at the moment of death—"Wife, better to die of pleasure than torture, (98)"—would be impossible for a journalist to honestly state, would have been impossible for him to witness: But their being in the tale, while perhaps wholly fictional, are the only means by which the reader can come to understand the head-space of the women and men embroiled in this Rwandan story. The vehicle of fiction has allowed Courtemanche to paint in more detail the story of this genocide; paint it in many stippled dots, like an impressionist painting, which when viewed close-up are confusing and even problematic, but assembled into a whole give the reader a picture of a society and not just those individuals within it.
A risk is run in this presentation—a heavy and measured risk—that the reader might dismiss much of what is read out of hand: How could anything so brutal happen in a post Holocaust world? Courtemanche has attempted to circumvent this risk with his preface statements. However, his caveat prior to the text is unnecessary in that the book itself so skillfully builds a comprehensive understanding of the situation that no one (who is intelligent, modern, at all human) reading—even without the preface—could possibly doubt its validity. The author guides readers up one of Rwanda's hills, as it were, through the narrative and shows him the view of a society; along the way there are indicators, subtle signs, marks of things to come, which build a foundation of understanding within us. Atop the hill, Courtemanche—through Valcourt—gives us the view ("You see, each country has a colour, a smell, and also a contagious sickness. (140)") of the tableau lain before us—a country lain in disarray by white colonialism and later white-guilt—and begins to lead us down the hill and into the night. The denouement of the novel begins in chapter seven as the participants begin to confront the eminent reality of their own deaths—something Methode is aware of from the beginning—and "threatened, frightened, ruined, sick, [...] were celebrating life. (156)" Whether Celestin thought these things or not becomes irrelevant: The journalist could not have been within her head, but the novelist can use her thoughts to convey the human quality of people confronted with atrocity and no choice but to go on living. The characters in Kigali have no choice but to continue their long walk into the sighing hills.
In presenting "Kigali" as a novel, Courtemanche is able to evade the question of guilt. Bernard Valcourt remains in Kigali, continues to work for humanitarian organizations, fights for genocide victims, and befriends a western medical aid worker. His story has a salvation element in that—though he lost Gentille—the character, in the end, "is at peace with himself (260)." In reality, a perhaps guilty Courtemanche lives in Montreal and likely feels all of the oppression of his "impotence in the face of horror." Hence the book.

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