Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 31, 2021

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, by Gil Courtemanche, translated by Patricia Claxton

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, retrieving unpublished reviews from my journals 1997-2007

In 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 to the time of the Rwandan genocide in 1994.  It seems appropriate that I share the review that I wrote in my reading journal at the time…


 A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, by Gil Courtemanche, first published 2000

From my journal, dated 2nd July 2004

I heard the author of this book being interviewed on Radio National not so long ago.  He had a a crusty. gravelly voice, roughened by too many cigarettes and chastened by life and the things he’d seen as a reporter.  He was in Rwanda when the genocidal war between the Hutu and the Tutsis broke out, and this book is his homage to the people he knew.

What does it do to a man when he is the sole survivor of a catastrophe, and he survives because he is White?  The sharpness of his pain cries out above his elegiac tone, and not just when he writes of his beloved Gentille, but also of his friends: little people — stall-keepers, prostitutes, waiters.

Wisely, he doesn’t try to explain what happened.  It’s both too big and too small for that.  He does, however, cast blame, especially on the Belgian missionaries who sowed the seed of ethnic hatred between the tall, fair-skinned Hutu, originating from Ethiopia, and the darker, more squat Tutsi. When the enmity spilled over into what the 20th century calls ‘ethnic cleansing’ the brutality shocked the world, its horror exacerbated by the fact that the UN was already there as a peace-keeping force, and did nothing.  Courtemanche is blunt about this: he says that well-trained and equipped UN soldiers could have controlled the situation.  It could have been prevented.

He is sardonic about the barbarity.  The Hutu butchered the Tutsi with machetes.  They lopped off the feet of the boys so that they couldn’t become soldiers.  They raped the women, hacked off their breasts, and left them to die slowly.  Sometimes very slowly, of AIDS.  They hated the women especially, because they bred the Tutsi children.  Courtemanche doesn’t spare Western sensibilities—he points out that Africans don’t have the luxury of a nice, clean war with smart bombs and quick clean deaths achieved with pin-point accuracy guns.

The sense of menace pervades a novel that closely follows what actually happened.  Everyone knows what’s coming, and the drunken, pot-smoking militias swagger about boasting about how they will kill the ‘cockroaches’.  Yet Bernard Valcourt stays on, making his film about AIDS, because he is passionately in love with the beautiful Gentille. This love he has for her is so beautifully drawn, so eloquently wrought, that it lifts the story onto a new plane.

In the midst of the horror, this love is a purpose for living.  While the Whites around them bumble about in the safety of hotels and aid program offices, corruption as endemic as AIDS, this love between the Canadian Valcourt and the woman Gentille is a jewel.

Courtemanche seems at pains to point out the light-heartedness of the Africans about sex.  Nearly all his women are prostitutes, of the good-natured cheery variety, not the sad, drug-ridden Western stereotype.  The men simply take women when they will, scoring, keeping tally, setting quests for themselves.  100 women before I die of AIDS, they say. This sex is often semi-public, it’s presented as an affectionate exchange.

By contrast, Gentille and Valcourt love each other slowly, quietly, privately, and with languorous gravity.  With poetry, long periods of drowsy time together, and eventually with the child they rescue in tow.  In a place and time with no future, they make idle plans.

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Gentille has hopes of leaving.  She wants to go to Canada, and to lead a life like mine.  But Valcourt thinks she wouldn’t fit in.  This sits uncomfortably with me—who is he to decide how resilient and adaptable she might be?  He says he’ll go somewhere that’s new for both of them, but inertia seems to rule.

When he finally decides to flee, it’s too late.  Gentille is abducted at a roadblock, and the child is lost, symbolising the fate of thousands about whom nothing is known.  Valcourt searches for her, but out of shame, she tells her friends to tell him she’s dead.  But he finds her eventually, mutilated, sick with AIDS, and refusing to see him.  He respects her wishes.

In return, he tells his friends to tell her that he’s left the country when in fact he’s stayed, helping to document the genocide for prosecutions.  In the context of all that’s gone before, this seems futile because of the widespread corruption.

It’s in this last part of the novel that Courtemanche raises individual moral choices.

Explaining why she doesn’t want to see him, Gentille says that every time Valcourt looks at her, she will know that what he really loves was the memory of her.  But I think that if he really loved her—and she was his legal wife so there are no immigration hurdles to overcome—he’d have taken her to Canada, cared for her injuries, and showed her that there was more to it than her beautiful face and their love-making. She was a fine, intelligent woman and in a culture more tolerant of disability (not to mention with better health care) she could have made a new life for herself.  To leave her sitting by the side of the road seems appalling.

That’s the power of this book.  It puts the story of the genocide in a human frame by individualising it.  I think Courtemanche has his hero abandon Gentille because that’s what the West did afterwards.  The genocide was too big, too dark, too venal a disaster to intrude much on Western sensibilities.  Like Valcourt, we love Africa when it’s beautiful, languorous and poetic.  We don’t want to know about the dark side.


According to Fishpond, Gil Courtemanche was born in Montreal in 1943 and died in 2011. A journalist, broadcaster, writer and filmmaker in international and third-world politics, he was the author of numerous works of fiction and non-fiction, and made the award-winning documentary The Gospel of AIDS. Courtemanche won the National Magazine Award for political reporting and was a consultant for the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. 

The book is still available: A Sunday At The Pool In Kigali (Canons)

Author: Gil Courtemanche
Title: A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali)
Translated by Patricia Claxton
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2003, first published 2000
ISBN: 9781841955254, pbk., 248 pages
Source: Personal library


Responses

  1. I’m glad you read that and not me. The failure of the hero to act always leaves me feeling powerless. And yet, as you say that is what the West has done. Even now we (Australia) don’t seem to be taking in Rwandans the way we are South Sudanese for instance.
    As it happens I’m reading a different book with the same issues, but by a woman, of the church causing trouble and of women having to live with having been repeatedly raped in captivity. At least the woman author gives them some agency.

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    • As in so many other places where atrocities have happened, it seems that there has not been justice for the victims. That’s the worst part.

      Not that we in Australia should criticise: If only we could get the Makarrata process started and begin the way forward…

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  2. The title gives me a misleading sense that this book could be, if not quite chick lit, fairly light in subject matter. So I would have been unlikely to pick it up. But reading your review I see how completely wrong my impression would have been.
    It sounds a very unsettling book because of the questions it raises about culpability for the conflict and the individual response.

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    • You are right… I’d never thought about how a title could lose its meaning with the passage of time.
      When the book came out, *everyone* knew the significance of Kigali in the title. The Rwandan genocide was fresh in our memories, we had seen horrific footage in the nightly news and read the reportage in the paper. Those of us who could, were contributing to Red Cross relief efforts, we were angry that it had been allowed to happen.

      Now, I imagine that many people don’t know where Rwanda is, much less its capital city. Perhaps they would assume a beach resort somewhere.

      Like


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