Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 30, 2021

Petit Pays, (Small Country), by Gaël Faye

I am indebted to Claire from Word by Word for my introduction to this remarkable book.  Like me, Claire is not a native speaker of French, and her review was encouraging and so I decided to try it.  Unlike my last attempt at reading in French, Petit Pays (Small Country) was easy.  I found myself really reading in French, that is, not translating into English as I went along, and I rarely needed to use the dictionary.  This is possibly because the book won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens: it’s a book for young people:

The Prix Goncourt des Lycéens is a French literary award created in 1987 as a sort of younger sibling of Prix Goncourt, a prestigious prize for French language literature. The ten members of the Académie Goncourt select twelve literary works as nominees. Some two thousand lycée (roughly equivalent to high school) students read all twelve novels, participate in discussions and debates about them, and ultimately vote on the winner.  (Wikipedia, lightly edited to remove links, viewed 29/1/21)

Petit Pays, is not, however, light reading.  It’s a coming of age story, set in the turbulent period of the Rwandan genocide, (1994) which spilled over into neighbouring countries.  The narrator, Gaby, looks back on his childhood in Bujumbara in Burundi, when he was ten years old.  When the story begins he is living a privileged life in a quiet suburb, messing about and getting into mischief with his mates, Gino, Armand and the (unnamed) twins.  His only concern is the state of his parents marriage, which is falling apart.

His mother is Rwandan, his father is a French expat in the civil service.  Michel is very comfortable enjoying a lifestyle he could not have in France, while Yvonne is unmoored.  She, her mother and grandmother have left Rwanda because of previous inter-ethnic conflict, and while she dreams of what she thinks is a French paradise, she also misses her family still in Rwanda, especially her sister Eusébie.  Gaby doesn’t like his mother’s refusal to let him learn the local language, and he’s not interested in her nostalgic stories about Rwanda.  He just wants to fit in.

By Christmas of that year the parents have separated, and Gaby spends it with his father while his little sister Ana goes with Maman to stay with Aunt Eusébie in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda.   Gaby becomes more aware that he is an outsider in his own country when his new bike is stolen and he can’t speak the local language to negotiate for its return.  He also realises the social and economic gulf between the life of privilege that he leads, and the poverty everywhere else.  By eavesdropping on adult conversations he learns that his Rwandan neighbours had escaped killings, massacres, war, pogroms,  destruction, fires, tsetse flies and apartheid, but in Burundi they have new problems: poverty, exclusion, quotas, xenophobia, rejection, scapegoating, depression, homesickness and nostalgia.   When there is news that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR, composed of Rwandan refugees in Uganda, Burundi and Zaire) has attacked Rwanda, Maman is ecstatic, but her joy is short lived because a few days later she learns that her gifted, much-admired brother Alphonse is dead, and Gaby’s Uncle Pacifique, just out of lycée, wants to join up and fight too.

These events impact on their little gang when Gino, a little older than the others, talks about child soldiers.  His father, a university professor with a passion for wildlife photography, treats Gino like an adult, and although Gaby’s awareness of politics and cultural issues is beyond his years, he gets fed up with Gino’s enthusiasm for eavesdropping in the ‘cabaret’ (the local meeting place where everyone goes to drink and talk). When the country livens up for the first-ever presidential election, Gaby thinks that the flags and bunting are fun.  He likes the singing and dancing.

All the adults, however, are on edge when the party that wins doesn’t have the support of the army.  Yet life progresses as normal for a while, and Gaby celebrates his eleventh birthday in grand style.  His parents briefly reconcile, and there is good news from Pacifique in Rwanda, who wants to introduce his fiancée to the family.

But all along there are portents of trouble, and the coup d’état when it comes is just the beginning.  The usual childhood troubles—small jealousies and betrayals within the gang—become emblematic of the wider conflict.  Gaby, who does not want to be involved, learns from chants of ‘Dirty Hutu’ and ‘Dirty Tutsi’ at school that he has to be one or the other, he cannot be neutral.  A trip to Rwanda for Pacifique’s wedding is marked by hostility at road blocks and insults broadcast on radio.  They get back to Burundi safely, but it is not safe for very long.

I remember when the first reports about the Rwandan genocide started filtering into our media, and like everyone else I was bewildered about how and why it had happened.  I subsequently read A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Canadian journalist Gil Courtemanche, (2003, translated by Patricia Claxton): it’s a fictionalised account narrated by a Québécois journalist, Bernard Valcourt, who was there to run a TV station but becomes a witness to the horror.  The novel was vivid and horrific, but Petit Pays has had more of an emotional impact on me because of the child’s-eye view.

Petit Pays is available in English from Fishpond: Small Country and  you can see how fine the Sarah Aridizzone’s translation is from excerpts in Stu’s review at Winston’s Dad.

Image credit:

 

Author: Gaël Faye
Title: Petit Pays (Small Country)
Publisher: Grasset & Fasquelle, 2016
ISBN: 9782253070443, pbk., 224 pages
Source: personal copy

 


Responses

  1. Oh, thank you for the mention Lisa, this is such a wonderful book! A work that really comes from the heart of the author.

    Gael Faye is also a singer, and his song Petit Pays is worth watching and listening to, to see the landscape and environment within which he spent that lost childhood.

    The book has since been made into a film and I was a little wary of seeing it due to the violence, but I’d lent my book to my French neighbour and when I realised that the Director had chosen to premiere the film here in Aix, his hometown, we couldn’t miss the opportunity.

    It was the last film I saw before France went into lockdown and it was something of an assault on all the senses, appreciated all the more for the narrative of the Director who said he got to know Gael Faye very well, hearing many stories of his childhood, all inspiration for this book. The actress who played his mother was also present and was equally eloquent and formidable. An unforgettable experience.

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    • Thanks for the link to the song, it’s very moving.
      (Quite apart from the difficulties of getting a copy) I’ll have to think about whether I want to see the film. Some of the images from media coverage at the time are still vivid in my mind.
      I don’t often feel ‘old’ but books like this remind me that this happened in my lifetime whereas for the audience for whom it was written, it is ‘history’.

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      • The film was tough, without the presentation, it would have been even harder, written stories allow us to comprehend without the visceral threat that images send to the brain and body.

        History and memory are interesting when I think about all that I recall and experienced last century, while my children only experienced this century, that’s what makes me feel, not old, but of another era.

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        • Yes, I think text also allows us to go at our own pace, to pause and reflect, and to make connections with other knowledge and experience, that, in the onward movement of a film, may be lost.
          But you know, horses for courses… lots of people don’t read books for whatever reason, so spreading awareness of this event in other media is a good idea.
          I was at a lunch yesterday where I was the only person who read books. I used to be used to that, but thanks to Covid, I was out of practice, and it felt a little bit lonesome.

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  2. Sounds very powerful, Lisa – I think seeing things through a child’s eyes could give this story even more impact though goodness knows it’s tragic enough anyway. And well done for reading in the native language.

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    • Thanks:) It’s certainly given my confidence about reading in French a boost.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m impressed you read this in French. It sounds like a deeply affecting read. I might see if I can hunt out the translation. I read A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali about 10 years ago now and it is one of those books that has stayed with me, so visceral and violent (but also very human) that it was.

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    • A Sunday at the Pool was a very powerful novel. I’ve dug out my review from 2004 and am typing it up as a ‘review from the archive’. I’ll probably have it finished for tomorrow…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. […] my recent review of Petit Pays by Gaël Faye, I referred to Gil Courtemanche’s novel A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, which I read closer […]

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  5. Congrats on reading it in French!

    Petit Pays is based on Gaël Faye’s life, and as Claire says, he’s also a musician.

    I saw the film too and it’s good, faithful to the book. It’s worth tracking down.

    PS: The winners of the Goncourt des Lycéens are often more interesting than the winners of the “real” Goncourt. But shh, don’t repeat it!

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    • LOL Emma, I shall keep an eye out for them:)

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  6. […] Petit Pays, (Small Country), by Gaël Faye (in French, but you can get an English translation) […]

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  7. This does sound so powerful. Like you, I’m not sure I could watch the film, I remember news footage of the genocide so clearly. I’ll definitely look for a translation of the book though – so impressed you read it in French!

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    • Oh, don’t be impressed, my French is really terrible, I’m just better at reading it than speaking it.

      Liked by 1 person


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