Gil Courtemanche insists that this book, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, is a novel, which is a good thing, because this clarification helps. Even if its does not dull the pain nor mitigate the shock, it helps in ameliorating that which is a bloody, horrible and terrifying tale.
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, published by Canongate (2004), for all its blood and gore is at heart a love story. It is the story of Valcourt and Gentille, two people who defy age and race and the madness raging all around them to drink deep from the cup of love.
But all the 258 pages also contain much more than that; this book is as Yann Martel has said, “A Heart of Darkness for Today”. Conrad is alive again and Kurtz is reigning supreme deep in the heart of Africa, his madness and impunity unchecked by the civilized codes of Europe.
Courtemanche has written a book that raises difficult questions; questions whose answers as they say in X-files are “out there somewhere”. Exactly where we may never know.
The novel opens as darkness descends. After years of animosity and two half hearted purges, the majority Hutus are set for the final solution because as one expatriate observes; “they have to kill each other at regular intervals. It’s like the menstrual cycle: a lot of blood flows, then everything returns to normal.” (p.195) Like the Nazis with the Jews, the Hutus have planned what will be a systematic and well-orchestrated genocide, one that would finally rid Rwanda of all “cockroaches” which is the Hutu term for Tutsis.
This book bears witness to hideous evil, unspeakable terror and unnamable horror. It is a story that disgusts and repels even as it compels you to turn the pages against your will and better judgment. As you turn the pages the book reads you as you read it because the pages of this book are like mirrors reflecting the hideous visages of our dark selves.
And that is what this book shows as neighbours turn against neighbours, colleagues butcher colleagues and worst of all, uncles slaughter nephews and nieces turn against aunties all because one is fair and tall and the other is dark and squat.
A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali raises serious questions about race, ethnicity and nationhood. In this case it is Rwanda, but shift perspectives and change the locale and it could be Igbos fleeing Kaduna in 1968 as the pogrom spread.
In Rwanda, the hate that fuelled the carnage of 1963, 1972 and then culminating in 1994 when the final solution was launched under the code name “the work” or “corvee collective” began at birth with the notion of ethnic superiority drummed into young ears conditioning them for the horror. A light skin, straight nose and long legs even in a sibling became the mark of Cain and turned a hapless brother or sister into a cockroach to be stomped to death.
How can one lay patriotic claim to a country where one is saved or doomed by the size and shape of his nose? Like the Holocaust that annihilated over six million Jews, the blood letting in Rwanda claimed almost a million lives as Hutus systematically decimated Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus in what has been called “the barbarian holocaust.” Where the Nazis used gas chambers, the Hutus made use of machetes and grenades imported from China and France.
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a novel written by a white man about the darkness sitting at the heart of Africa. As in Conrad, the darkness is called up by naked power and impunity. Whites come to Africa where the rules are slack and they arrogate powers to themselves.
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali has been compared to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness because of its exploration of the impulses that drive people to evil and to Albert Camus’ The Plague because of the state of siege in which the Tutsis find themselves as well as the inevitability of their fate as they bow to crude death.
But it is much more than that. This novel is Lord of the Flies high on crack. It is a document that bears witness to the dark impulses within all of us as well as a visceral exploration not just of darkness but also of madness and when you finally turn the last page and set the book down, you will look at your fingers and wonder why they are not stained with blood.