Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2014

The Past Ahead (2008), by Gilbert Gatore, translated by Marjolijn de Jager

13697209The Past Ahead is one of those harrowing books that is hard to read and yet powerful in the questions it raises.  It shines a light on the Rwandan genocide, forcing the reader to confront questions about guilt,  justice and reconciliation.

Two narratives bring executioner and survivor together many years after the horror.  Isaro is the sole surviving member of her family.  As a little girl she was adopted by the French family who witnessed the atrocity, and she has been brought up in France, but in her adolescence she rejected these rescuers and abandoned them.  When the novel begins she has returned to Rwanda to retrieve her memories and – because she feels the world has prematurely ‘moved on’  without justice to the victims – to document the entire genocide.  She plans to interview everyone.

The other narrative is the story of a deaf-mute called Niko, who took part in the massacres.  Isaro is writing his story.

The book begins with a warning:

1. “Dear Stranger, welcome to this narrative. I should warn you that if, before you take one step, you feel the need to perceive the indistinct line that separates fact from fiction, memory from imagination; if logic and meaning mean one and the same thing to you; and lastly, if anticipation is the basis for your interest, you may well find this journey unbearable.”  (p. 1)

A postmodernist style, it seems to me, is eerily appropriate for the telling of this story. It’s called a novel in the introduction by the translator, but while it’s a work of imagination, it bears little resemblance to any form or style of novel that I’ve come across.  It is the character Isaro who writes this introduction, which replaces her first draft which began “Dear Stranger, welcome to this narrative whose only survivor will be you”.  Isaro had felt that her first draft was too violent and so altered it to this more cautious introduction.  But these enigmatic words make more sense to the reader who learns from the back cover that Gatore was born in Rwanda in 1981 and kept a diary during the civil war.  The diary was lost during his escape, and he began writing in an attempt to reassemble the fragments of his memories.  The author is telling us in these opening words that this book reveals truth even if these things never happened exactly as depicted here.

That is why, I think, that Niko is characterised as a deaf-mute, unable to speak for himself.  He represents the silenced voices of the perpetrators of the massacre, people whose only defence can be that they were following orders, though as Gatore shows us, there is more to it than that. But Isaro, trying to record events if not to understand them, could not possibly know Niko’s thoughts any more than she can possibly interview every single survivor, executioner, accomplice, or resistance fighter.  The numbers, as Gatore reminds us repeatedly are too many, and this in itself is the trigger for Isaro’s project: in France she hears a radio report about the legal aftermath of the genocide, still unresolved after so many years, and she cannot bear the detachment of her friends when they learn that the number of prisoners is so enormous and the legal authorities so overloaded that it will take several centuries to hear all the cases. (p. 21)  There is no other way to contemplate the enormity of this catastrophe except through a work of imagination, as signalled by these overt impossibilities by the author.

Niko, an outcast since birth, has withdrawn from his village.  Haunted by the fear that he might have killed his own father as people say he did, he is living in a taboo cave, amongst gorillas.  They teach him compassion when they care for him when he is hurt, and they are the family he no longer has.  Gatore forces the reader to confront the humanity of the killer with a portrait of a scared, damaged and lonely man whose actions were forced upon him.  If he had not killed his first victim he would have been killed himself, and his victim would have died anyway.

170. He keeps his eyes closed while the executions are carried out in front of him, surrendering to a relentless self-interrogation.  Is cruelty born from a kind of instinct that tells you that any form of rebellion will cost you your own life and changes nothing in the situation against which you rebel? Does the instinct of survival justify killing? Is it better to die so as not to kill the other, who must die no matter what? (p. 83)

Having enlisted the reader’s empathy, not least because it is his character Isaro writing these words in carefully numbered fragments, Gatore then presents Niko’s tortured self-analysis: at what point did he start to enjoy his role as leader of a gang that raped, tortured and brutally murdered its victims?

173. What happened next surpassed any horror or cruelty that even the most depraved mind might picture.  Niko’s group murdered as many people as it could, at first following the orders and signals of the leaders, and then simply in competition with each other – “I must have killed at least twenty today, and you?’’ – and, finally, out of habit.  When the job began to feel monotonous to them, it was no longer a matter of just how many victims, but also how they were executed: sliced to pieces, buried after being stoned nearly to death, strung up head down, and countless other ways.  In the evening, to celebrate or to forget the day’s accomplishments, beer or banana wine flowed, and unlimited amounts of skewered meat and grilled corn were consumed until deep into the night. They had to recuperate from today and be fortified for tomorrow.  (p. 84)

Can there be any hope of genuine reconciliation in a situation like this?  Abandoned by the French university who renege on their offer to fund the project, Isaro is befriended by a taxi-driver, and she falls in love.  But in Rwanda, everyone and anyone may be culpable.  Just as Niko is haunted by the possibility that he may have killed his father, Isaro cannot rid herself of the fear that her lover may be the one who killed her family.  These doubts raise the question: does proximity make culpability worse, because after all, every victim was someone’s family.  Should guilt, justice and reconciliation differ depending on relationships?  Logically, if a killer feels more guilt for killing his own father, then he feels less guilt about killing the father of someone else.  Can a survivor forgive the murderer of another’s family but not her own?  Doesn’t that devalue the life of the Other, and isn’t that somehow morally repugnant?  Of course we see that it’s human nature to feel differently about our own, but we do not expect justice to differentiate between them.  But isn’t that exactly what happens when the world says rhetorically ‘But what can you do?’, decides that justice is too hard to deliver, and briskly ‘moves on?

In Rwanda, in post-war Germany, in the aftermath of the Serbian massacres or the genocide in Cambodia, these are not idle philosophical questions.  When the numbers of executioners are beyond the capabilities of the justice system, societies have negotiated some kind of accommodation so that survivors and perpetrators have come to live side-by-side once more.  South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission seems to have been successful, but who can say at what personal cost for individuals?   Gatore seems to be saying that for some people, it’s more than the human heart can bear.

Author: Gilbert Gatore
Title: The Past Ahead
Translated by Marjolijn de Jager
Publisher: Indiana University Press (French Voices/Global African Voices series) 2012, first published 2008
ISBN: 9780253006660
Source: Personal Library, purchased from the Africa Book Club, $19.00


  1. It is posts like this where a ‘like’ seems very inappropriate. Gatore sounds like he has handled this most difficult subject well. I am one who likes to keep that line between fiction and ‘reality’, but genocides are nightmares where truth is distorted and distorted until it is replaced by a powerful, obscene fiction.

    I took a course that looked at genocide in history at university. I honestly don’t know how historians who specialise in this subject do it.


    • Goodness, I can’t imagine doing a whole course in genocide, let alone specialising in it. I once heard a UN lawyer talking about the issues of prosecution and punishment, and I was overwhelmed with admiration for people who do that kind of work.


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