Book Review

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali revisits one of the 20th Century's most chilling atrocities when, in Rwanda in 1994, at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were brutally massacred by Hutu extremists. In that sense, it is the fictional counterpoint to Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. Courtemanche's decision to blend a documentary rendering of these events with a love story yields mixed results, and while it undoubtedly gives a human face to the almost unfathomable extent of the genocide, it also compromises the message.

The author's alter ego is Bernard Valcourt, a middle-aged French-Canadian journalist who has moved to the Rwandan capital, Kigali, to establish a TV station and make a documentary on the country's AIDS epidemic. However, through a combination of his own inertia and the authority's obstructions, he has failed to make much headway. Instead, he whiles away his days at Kigali's most exclusive hotel, the Mille-Collines, where he rubs shoulders with representatives of the Rwandan elite, the country's international aid fraternity and the enterprising local prostitutes. It is there that he meets and falls in love with Gentille, a beautiful 22 year old Hutu waitress, whose characteristically Tutsi appearance - tall, thin-nosed and pale skinned - has placed her in danger as the Hutu-led government intensifies its campaign against the Tutsi minority.

Their burgeoning and improbable love affair dominates the book, and while their relationship allows an uncomfortably intimate view of the Rwandan experience, it ultimately proves to be the novel's weak link. As much as I wanted to be moved by the tragedy of a love affair forged as the contagion of racial violence spreads across the country, I could not be convinced that a young woman, famed throughout Kigali for her beauty, would have any interest in a washed-up divorced white man who is more than twice her age. This implausibility is matched only be some of the most risible dialogue I've ever read. "I want you to teach me the White people's love", simpers Gentile at one point, while Valcourt marvels at the "ecstasy of Gentille".

Courtemanche's unfortunate tendency to sentimentalise and objectify Rwanda's women is redeemed by the pace of his narrative which builds up the tension and sense of impending disaster very effectively. Furthermore, his blunt and uncompromising denunciation of the local and international forces responsible for the genocide carries real weight. The apathy of the United States government, the impotence of the UN, the racial meddling of the post-colonial Belgians and French, and the corruption of local politicians and clergy are all identified as catalysts for the violence. He is also particularly good when exposing Rwanda's deadly dual obsessions with race and sex, and the official refusal to acknowledge the AIDS epidemic.

This is undoubtedly a powerful depiction of a genocide that was shocking even by the debased standards of the 20th Century. However, its impact is cheapened by the sentimentalising and grandiloquence of its main protagonist, and I never quite escaped the feeling that this would have been so much better in the hands of Graham Greene. Although some critics have compared the book to Greene's post-colonial morality tales, Valcourt is muddled and misty-eyed in a way that Greene's world-weary travellers rarely were.

-- Reviewed by Jane Morris on 19/09/2004

Further Information
ISBN-10: 1841954330
ISBN-13: 9781841954332
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd
Publication Date: 04/09/2003
Binding: Hardcover
Number of pages: 272

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