Synopses & Reviews
In the middle of Kigali there is a swimming pool surrounded by deckchairs and a score of tables all made of white plastic. And forming a huge L overhanging this patch of blue stands the Hôtel des Mille-Collines, with its habitual clientele of international experts and aid workers, middle-class Rwandans, screwed-up or melancholy expatriates of various origins, and prostitutes. All around the pool and hotel in lascivious disorder lies the part of the city that matters, that makes the decisions, that steals, kills, and lives very nicely, thank you. The French Cultural Centre, the UNICEF offices, the Ministry of Information, the embassies, the presidents palace (recognizable by the tanks on guard), the crafts shops popular with departing visitors where one can unload surplus black market currency, the radio station, the World Bank offices, the archbishops palace. Encircling this artificial paradise are the obligatory symbols of decolonization: Constitution Square, Development Avenue, Boulevard of the Republic, Justice Avenue, and an ugly, modern cathedral. Farther down, almost in the underbelly of the city, stands the red brick mass of the Church of the Holy Family, disgorging the poor in their Sunday best into crooked mud lanes bordered by houses made of the same clay. Small red houses -- just far enough away from the swimming pool not to offend the nostrils of the important -- filled with shouting, happy children, with men and women dying of AIDS and malaria, thousands of small households that know nothing of the pool around which others plan their lives and, more importantly, their predictable deaths.
Jackdaws as big as eagles and as numerous as house sparrows caw all around the hotel gardens. They circle in the sky, waiting, like the humans theyre observing, for the cocktail hour. Now is when the beers arrive, while the ravens are alighting on the tall eucalyptus trees around the pool. When the ravens have settled, the buzzards appear and take possession of the topmost branches. Woe betide the lowly jackdaw that fails to respect the hierarchy. Birds behave like humans here.
Precisely as the buzzards are establishing their positions around the pool, precisely then, the French paratroopers on the plastic deckchairs begin putting on Rambo airs. They sniff all the feminine flesh splashing around in the heavily chlorinated water of the pool. Its freshness matters little. There is vulture in these soldiers with their shaven heads, watching and waiting beside a pool that is the centrepiece of a meat stall where the reddest, most lovingly garnished morsels are displayed alongside the flabby and scrawny feminine fare whose only diversion is this waterhole. On Sundays, as on every other day of the week at around five oclock, a number of carcasses -- some plump, some skeletal -- disturb the surface of the pool, well aware that the “paras,” as the paratroopers are known, are not the least daunted either by cellulite or by skin clinging to bones merely from habit. The women, if they knew what danger stalked them, would drown in anticipation of ecstasy or else get themselves to a nunnery.
This tranquil Sunday, a former minister of justice is warming up energetically on the diving board. He does not realize that his strenuous exercises are eliciting giggles from the two prostitutes from whom he is expecting a sign of recognition or interest before diving into the water. He wants to beguile because he doesnt want to pay. He hits the water like a disjointed clown. The girls laugh. The paras too.
Around the pool, Québécois and Belgian aid workers vie in loud laughter. The Belgians and Québécois arent friends; they dont work together, even though they are working toward the same goal: ‘development. That magic word which dresses up the best and most irrelevant of intentions. The two groups are rivals, always explaining to the locals why their kind of development is better than the others. The only thing they have in common is the din they make. There ought to be a word for the atmosphere surrounding these Whites who talk, laugh and drink in a way that makes the whole pool know their importance -- no, not even that -- just their vacuous existence. Lets use the word ‘noisiness because theres certainly noise, but its continuous, theres a permanence to it, a perpetual squawking. In this shy, reticent and often deceptive country, they live in a state of noisiness, like noisy animals. They are also in continuous rut. Noise is their breathing, silence their death, and the asses of Rwandan women their territory of exploration. They are noisy explorers of Third World asses. Only the Germans, when they descend on the hotel in force like a battalion of moralizing accountants, can match the Belgians and Québécois in noisiness.
Important Frenchmen dont stay at this hotel. They dig themselves in at the Méridien with high-class Rwandans and clean hookers who sip whisky. The hookers at this hotel are rarely clean. They drink Pepsi while waiting to be picked up and offered a local beer, which may get them offered a whisky or a vodka later on. But these women are realists, so today theyll settle for a Pepsi and a john.
Valcourt, who is also Québécois but has almost forgotten it over the years, observes these things and notes them down, muttering as he does so, sometimes angrily, sometimes with tenderness, but always audibly. For all anyone knows or imagines, hes writing about them, and everyone wants someone to ask him what hes writing, and worries about this book hes been writing since the Project left him more or less high and dry. Sometimes he even pretends to be writing, in order to show hes alive, watchful and serious like the disillusioned philosopher he claims to be when he runs out of excuses for himself. Hes not writing a book. He writes to put in time between mouthfuls of beer, or to signal that he doesnt want to be disturbed. Rather like a buzzard on a branch, in fact, Valcourt is waiting for a scrap of life to excite him and make him unfold his wings.
At the end of the terrace, walking slowly and grandly, appears a Rwandan just back from Paris. You can tell, because his sporty outfit is so new its yellows and greens are blinding, even for sunglass-protected eyes. Theres sniggering at a table of expatriates. Admiration at several tables of locals. The Rwandan just back from Paris is afloat on a magic carpet. From the handle of his crocodile attaché case dangle First Class and Hermès labels. In his pocket, along with other prestige labels, he probably has an import licence for some product of secondary necessity, which he will sell at a premium price.
He orders a “verbena-mint” at such volume that three ravens depart the nearest tree. Gentille, who has just completed her social service studies and is interning at the hotel, doesnt know what a verbena-mint is. Intimidated, she whispers -- so softly she cant even hear herself -- that there are only two brands of beer, Primus and Mutzig. The Rwandan on his magic carpet is not listening and replies that of course he wants the best, even if its more expensive. So Gentille will bring him a Mutzig, which for some is the best and for everyone more expensive. Valcourt scribbles feverishly. He describes the scene with indignation, adding some notes about the outrageousness of African corruption, but he does not stir.
"Courtemanche's novel conveys the pressure of lived experience very powerfully; yet at the same time experience is clearly mediated by a sophisticated literary imagination. His time in Rwanda, where he worked as a journalist, may have produced the first great novel of the catastrophe that befell that country, but its literary qualities are what count, not their context." Giles Foden, Guardian Review
"This is where Courtemanche is most powerful: he's not afraid to question morality, nor to reveal the human condition in all its heinous inhumanity. The story is intense and gut-wrenching and, at his best, Courtemanche remains detached enough from the catastrophes and horrors to be both poetic and disquieting. Be prepared - this is not a book for the weak-stomached." Sarah Emily Miano, The Observer
"Courtemanche has written a novel that contains the kind of social criticism that still, almost 10 years after the terrible events, is sharp and pertinent....The journalist in him has, thankfully, emptied himself, heart and all, into a love story full of real people that demand to be remembered." Quill & Quire
"This novel is not only powerful and beautifully written. Corrosive, denunciatory, Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali also evokes the powerlessness and the complicity that permitted the [Rwandan] massacre to take place." Le Devoir
"A voice that evokes humanity in all its depth and breadth, where executioner and victim are brother and sister, where death is a daily occurrence. A voice I implore you to listen to." Le Journal de Montreal
"Those who read this novel and I hope they will be numerous are in for some astonishing pages on the subject of love and death." David Homel, Books in Canada
"When your first novel is compared to the works of Albert Camus, André Malrauz and Graham Greene, its a pretty good start.... Courtemanches novel is guided by a strong moral presence: that of the author. He has an astringent personality, and he puts it to good use in this book..." The Gazette
"Journalist Courtemanche follows in Graham Greenes footsteps to create popular work that distinguishes itself on the literary scene." David Homel, Enycyclopedia Brittanica
"A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a blunt, vividly visual account of a human cataclysm that has left a scar on the psyche of us all. At the same time it is a testament to love, its durabilility and frailty in the face of annihilation. Do not expect it to leave you untouched." Jonathan Kaplan, author of The Dressing Station
This landmark novelpenned by a journalist who spent several years in Africaconfronts the nightmare that ravaged Rwanda in April 1994, when the Hutu-led government orchestrated genocide against the Tutsi people.
"The novel of the year" is how La Presse billed this extraordinary book, winner of the Prix des Libraires du Quebec in 2000. Now Knopf Canada brings this bestseller a story of love and humanity at its limits to English-language readers in a masterful translation by Patricia Claxton, twice winner of the Governor Generals Award.
The swimming pool of the Mille-Collines hotel is a magnet for a discrete group of Kigali residents: aid workers, Rwandan bourgeoisie, expatriates and prostitutes. Among these patrons is the hotel waitress Gentille, a beautiful Hutu often mistaken for a Tutsi, who has long been admired by Bernard Valcourt, a foreign journalist. As the two slide into a love affair, civil unrest in Rwanda makes insidious progress, while the people around the pool take on the menacing guises of war.
This landmark novel penned by a journalist who spent several years in Africa confronts the nightmare that ravaged Rwanda in April 1994, when the Hutu-led government orchestrated genocide against the Tutsi people. With profound compassion and consummate control, Courtemanche navigates a world about to be wrested apart, where the faces of the aggressors could easily be those of our neighbours, our friends, our families. A solemn denunciation of poverty, ignorance, global apathy and media blindness, this stirring hymn to humanity asks at its heart, like all great literature, the only question that matters: How are we to live our lives, and how to die?
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali
is a moving, passionate love story set amid the turmoil and terror of Rwandas genocide.
All manner of Kigali residents pass their time by the pool of the Mille-Collines hotel: aid workers, Rwandan bourgeoisie, expatriates, UN peacekeepers, prostitutes. Keeping a watchful eye is Bernard Valcourt, a jaded foreign journalist, but his closest attention is devoted to Gentille, a hotel waitress with the slender, elegant build of a Tutsi. As they slip into an intense, improbable affair, the delicately balanced world around them-already devastated by AIDS-erupts in a Hutu-led genocide against the Tutsi people. Valcourts efforts to spirit Gentille to safety end in their separation. It will be months before he learns of his lovers shocking fate.
About the Author
Gil Courtemanche is an author and journalist in international and Third World politics. Among his recent nonfiction works are Québec
(1998) and Nouvelles douces colères
(1999). He lives in Montreal.
Patricia Claxton is one of Canadas foremost translators, and the recipient of two Governer Generals Awards for translation. She lives in Montreal.
Reading Group Guide
1. Courtemanche has said: “People say to me its the first time they feel Africa, its the first time they understand what happened in Rwanda.” (The Herald
, Glasgow) Which parts of the novel in particular managed to show the situation in a new light for you?
2. Why do you think the author, a well-known journalist, decided to tell this story as fiction? Why do you think it became such an international phenomenon, published in 14 languages in one season?
3. Which was your favourite character in the novel, and why?
4. Cyprien says, “You could live only if you knew you were going to die.” If the novel asks, like all great literature, how are we to live our lives and how to die — what conclusions, if any, did you draw?
5. Since Whites are depicted as responsible for so much trouble in Rwanda, how do you feel about Valcourts relationship with Gentille? How does their love story fit with the terrifying depictions of rape and murder? How did you feel about Valcourts return to Kigali after the genocide?
6. Courtemanche draws an explicit comparison between the Rwandan genocide and the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, stating that the killers killed with such savagery because “they were too poor to build gas chambers.” Did you find this a vivid comparison?
7. How does the novel compare with your expectations of it?
8. “A few pages are enough for you to be swept away into the terrifying madness of a country” (Le Nouvel Observateur). How does the author manage to give both a wide vision of the situation in the country and an intimate portrait of the characters?
1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
It’s the classic story. I always wanted to be a writer but I became a journalist, though this didn’t stop me from writing poetry, songs, television comedy. I came to writing books late, because I admired too many writers. I didn’t feel equal to it, and I had the impression that to publish you had to be either a genius (rare), or a bit pretentious. And then, to impress an intellectual woman, I think, I wrote my first book. The way it was received gave me the courage to publish more. And now I continue.
2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
It was a long internal journey, although I don’t like that expression. I passed a lot of time in Rwanda before the genocide while making a documentary on AIDS. I made some friends there, almost all of whom were killed during the genocide, and more still died from AIDS. I returned there several months after the genocide to gather testimonies of survivors and also to try to discover how my friends had disappeared. After several years, I said to myself that the only way to tell their actual life was to invent their last days and their death. But it’s also the fruit of a reflection, perhaps subconscious, on traditional journalism that hardly ever succeeds in telling us about people in torment, only the torment itself with people inside that one cannot distinguish or identify.
3) What is it that you're exploring in this book?
The coupling of life and death, the African coupling of sex and death, but above all the capacity of humans to be greater than all the horrors that they can invent. The absolute presence of life even in the most horrific moments of history. The superiority of life. And a bit about love that sometimes elevates lovers.
4) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
I think it’s Gentille because, like all the African women I’ve met, she has the spirit of what Paul Eluard calls “the persistent desire to endure”.
5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Only to think that these are our neighbours and that everything the media tell us about tribal wars is just a big heap of bullshit, fed by an unconscious racism or by a total ignorance of Africa.
6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
Yes, in Spain a young radio reporter, as elegant as a Flamenco dancer, started out by saying: Why write another book about the Second World War? I should say that he had admitted to having not read the book. I didn’t think that he hadn’t even read the press release and that he thought perhaps that Kigali was a French town.
7) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
For me, I think of “work” as what I do for a living and not as in “work of art”. So, no. Because I don’t treat my work as a journalist and my work as a writer of books any differently. I’m always doing the same thing: telling stories. So if I tell them well or badly, that depends on taste, context or unconscious prejudice. But the great many articles, reviews or profiles in all the countries in which I am published have convinced me that what I am telling is of interest to hundreds of thousands of people.
8) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
Albert Camus, André Malraux, Graham Greene, Paul Éluard.
9) If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
Musician or cook (in my own restaurant).
Probably the passion for the human being and all its creation: especially jazz, wine and food, hockey and Canadian football, sitcoms like Friends or All in the Family, learning, travelling, telling stories and, mostly, being in love.
10) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
The Bible. But the story would be quite different. Neither Sharon, Hamas, Bush or Bin Laden could invoke the name of God for justifying their killings. They would be in God's jail.
More seriously: The Outsider by Albert Camus or The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.
From the Hardcover edition.