A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali by Gil Courtemanche (trans Patricia Claxton) - review by Aidan Hartley

Aidan Hartley

Sex and Death in Africa

A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali


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THIS NOVEL IS very powerful and I urge you to read it, but this is not to say that [ like it. Gil Courtemanche’s Un dimanche a la piscine a Kigali has spent a year on Canada’s French-language bestseller lists, applauded as a lifeaffirming tale. From the outset, though, I wasn’t sure if that’s really what it is. The main protagonist, Bernard Valcourt, is supposed to be a world-weary but sympathetic Quebecois journalist. He seemed to me more like a creepy sex tourist, solipsistic, opinionated and washed-up, the type of honky that slumps across many a bar all over Africa. Vakourt’s story is no more edifying for being set in Rwanda on the eve of the 1994 genocide, in which up to a million were murdered, hacked to pieces, shot and blown to bits. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a third of the population has Aids.

To summarise the tale, we must start with Gentille, a Hutu waitress and a virgin, who is serving Valcourt at the poolside of Kigali’s Hotel des Mille-Collines. He has an erection. They fall in love and later marry. In the interim we are treated to a series of preposterous but distressing events. A whore fellates an Aids-infected nl’an on his deathbed, in the presence of his mother. When he can’t get it up he performs cunnilingus on the prostitute. Another man is forced to enter his wife after she has been gang-raped by militiamen at a roadblock. He is shot as he reaches orgasm; then she is hacked to pieces. An Aidsinfected pool attendant with a grudge against white women anally penetrates a Canadian diplomat’s wife who is seven months pregnant. As she climaxes, her waters break and she gives birth at the same instant she acquires HIV I won’t ruin it for you by revealing what happens to Gentille after she marries Valcourt, but it is appalling. All this is interspersed with the details of the days leading up to the genocide in Rwanda. Outrageously the book closes with the sentence, ‘Valcourt is at peace with himself.’

The Catholic Church in Rwanda, like the French, aided and abetted Rwanda’s genocide. But in Central Africa one can no more trust in God than in the ability of the West to impose justice or to help constructively. Rwanda is beyond saving. In response .to this situation, the characters in the novel drink, tell jokes and have lots of sex:

Valcourt felt like someone aboard one of those monstrous amusement park rides that inspire terror and exhilaration, both the fear of dying and an immeasurable rush of life, the one emotion impossible to separate from the other … These minutes of intense life shared among friends were all saying the same thing in the same language, using doom and horroar to reaffirm life.

In the course of placing his tale in context, Courtemanche expresses several opinions about matters of fierce debate in Rwanda’s history. Some assertions I agree with (France’s culpability in the genocide, for example), but I worry that readers will accept other, less accurate ones as fact. The historical roots of the hatred between Hutus and Tutsis are traced to the divide-and-rule tactics of white colonialists, but this is only part of the story. Nobody wants to take responsibility for savagery in Africa. Undoubtedly a plan for a final solution was formulated after the Tutsi forces invaded Rwanda in 1990. When President Juvenal Habyarimana’s aircraft was shot down over Kigali on 6 April 1994, it did trigger the fury of massacres that we now describe as the genocide. The author lays the blan1e squarely on the shoulders of extremist Hutus. The truth, however, is that the assassins have never been identified. Unfortunately, it might just as easily have been started by the Tutsi-led rebels, who had no idea that the genocide would ignite so quickly, and before they were able to defeat the Rwandan Army and Interahamwe Hutu militias. Some did warn that it was about to happen, including General Romeo Dallaire, the conunander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Kigali. In Courtemanche’s thinly disguised portrait of him, Dallaire is a time-serving bureaucrat, and that is completely unjust.

I think the joke is on the white Western liberals who have taken this for a life-affirming book. I find it full of satire, nihilism and misanthropy. That sentence, ‘Valcourt is at peace with himself’, is bitterly sarcastic. Nothing has been learned. We are told that what was happening in Rwanda is still going on.

There has been no justice after the genocide perpetrated on the Tutsis by the Hutus. The French regrouped Hutu extremist forces inside Congo, from where they sparked the new conflagration in which millions more have perished across Central Africa. The Tutsi guerrilla chief and current president, Paul Kagame, traded on the guilt of Westerners like Clare Short to finance his dictatorship while using the rhetoric of democracy. His senior officers have made slaves of the Congolese and looted their land.

And yet how are we to depict the genocide in Rwanda? Human-rights reports and investigative books are valuable, because they tell us some of the facts of what happened and why. These documents can even describe what genocide smells and looks like. But reportage misses out the crucial insights that we need in order to understand the human element in these atrocities.

Courtemanche was in Rwanda for some time – though when, I don’t know. He clearly struggled, as everybody did, to express what he had seen. One was lost for words at the enormity of the violence, yet obsessed by what had happened. How to account for it? It took years to try to explain. My friend Nick Hughes spent all the money he had to make a film, entitled ‘100 Days’, using actors who were genocide survivors. (While filming on location, at one point, they uncovered the skeletons of their relatives.) Courtemanche wrote a work of fiction: that was his way of dealing with it, and I don’t know if a better job could have been done.

As regards A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali’s merits as a novel, there is scant character development in the narrative, which is really an episodic succession of sadistic tableaux. The characters, indeed, are stereotypes: pimply and corrupt white aid workers, lascivious white women, pneumatic black girls, philandering black men. Yet Courtemanche succeeds in conveying the strangely compelling aspect of living under the shadow of doom, when it became obvious that there was no God in Rwanda, and that no US Cavalry was going to ride over the hill and prevent genocide. He shows us how people respond to utter hopelessness and I think he has depicted the atmosphere of the darkest days of humanity with great skilJ. This book must have been a nightmare to write and we should applaud him for his bravery.


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