Nine years have passed since the Hutu massacre of the Tutsis put Rwanda on the mental map of the west, which means it's been off our maps for at least the past eight, while the country remains in crisis. Gil Courtemanche, a Quebec journalist who witnessed the disaster, wrote this debut novel as a 'chronicle' - that is, for history and against our amnesia. There's a lost cause for you, though the French original was well received in Quebec. This is its English translation.
Kigali's central character is Valcourt, a middle-aged burnt-out case in Rwanda who spends his days shooting a documentary on AIDS and his off hours poolside admiring Gentille, a beautiful and untouchable young waitress. In the distance something explodes, but no one seems interested, least of all the embassy officials and the UN troops. They're preoccupied with their own romantic prospects or tomorrow's golf game.
Soon roadblocks are everywhere, as are militiamen with machetes who talk loudly of the Tutsi 'insects' and the 'work' that is to begin. Then one of Valcourt's friends is murdered. Still no one seems to see the disaster coming, except a few clear-sighted Rwandans who are also its surest victims. It's either that or AIDS, they say. What's the difference?
Not much, Courtemanche answers, and tracks the catastrophe as a pathologist does a disease, from infection through outbreak. He does this with the help of background information that just occasionally reads like a journalist's notebook, but chiefly through stories of ordinary Rwandans and outsiders who sometimes act heroically. This is both a way of making history come alive and a statement that individual lives are the only history that matters, that the requited love for Gentille that makes Valcourt human again outweighs ideologies that turn people into insects. Their relationship has a special piquancy because Gentille, with her Hutu identity card and Tutsi features, is Rwanda, absurdly divided and at risk from both factions.
If she gains stature as the embodiment of Rwanda, Gentille gives back several inches in her incarnation as the answer to a middle-aged man's prayers. Her breasts are perky, her sexual responses flattering and her innocence somehow boundless. Beyond the florid sex and horrific violence lies the Pure Girl-Woman and a clue to this novel's literary ancestry - it's not Greene or Camus, as the burnt-out-case hero might suggest. No, it's Dickens (an author Courtemanche has translated) who also was fascinated by the human levers of institutional cruelty and its victims, and whose generous sympathy sometimes ran wild and produced a Little Nell.
Not that sentiment is the wrong mode for a story like this one. It's only that like other modes it has its characteristic deformation, in this case the occasional kitsch impulse that, in the novel's one truly Hollywood moment, introduces John Lennon's "Imagine" as background music to the massacre. Pasolini's SalÚ treated a similar subject more unblinkingly, pointing out a connection between kitsch music and evil and allowing love about five seconds on camera before it got obliterated. This is perhaps a more accurate estimate of the chance love has in hell than Kigali can afford, which is to say SalÚ's deformation was to be a film people can't bear to watch.
Each language has a unique syntactic style that defies perfect translation. If the translator preserves the style too faithfully, the result reads as if a machine produced it. If the prose is Englished too freely, the portion of the author's style that depends on his or her language is destroyed. In its slightly exotic syntax and Latinate adjectives, and the odd near-archaism, the translator Patricia Claxton's conservative rendering of Kigali sometimes reminds you that it is a translation.