Synopses & Reviews
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?
"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
"A strong, assured voice...A novel stuck on reality that nevertheless transcends it. You will recognize places and characters. You will recognize the mugginess of the climate. But Courtemanches fiction transmits the depth of the real better than any objective documentation." Relations
"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
"A captivating first novel...Gil Courtemanches fine writing and refined style... weave together a love story full of beauty and tenderness."Voir
"A first novel whose story hits hard, very hard." Le Droit
"A tremendous novel." René Homier-Roy, Radio Canada/Cest bien meilleur le matin
"A few pages are enough for you to be swept away into the terrifying madness of a country." Le Nouvel Observateur
"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 fresco with humanist accents which could easily find a place next to the works of Albert Camus and Graham Greene." La Presse
"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.
About the Author
Gil Courtemanche is a well-respected journalist specializing in international and third world politics, and the author of several works of non-fiction in French including Québec
and Nouvelles douces colères
. His journalism in print and film has taken him to various war-torn countries including Lebanon and Haiti. He has worked in politics and journalism since the 1960s, and is also one of the writers of Moi et l’Autre
, Quebec’s most successful sitcom.
“Very early I recognised that some things you could say in songs… some things you could say on radio and some things you could say in writing. So there are a lot of tools to do the same thing, which is being a witness and telling.” Courtemanche was first sent to Kigali by his newspaper in 1989 to research the problems for development being caused by AIDS in Africa. He travelled to Rwanda four times, spending a total of a year in the country, and produced an award-winning TV documentary, The Gospel of AIDS. It was ten years after his first trip to Rwanda that he wrote the first chapter of this, his first novel.
He based the characters in the novel on people he met in Rwanda, most of whom died in the genocide. By giving them voices again through fiction, he helps outsiders to understand the desperate realities of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and to see beyond the horrors to the human face of the tragedy. “It is easy for us in the West to blame it on tribalism and thus exonerate ourselves from guilt,” Courtemanche has said. He shows the conflict in Rwanda to be not simply “ethnic” but catalyzed by the West and the forces of capitalism.
As the novel progresses, protagonist Bernard Valcourt finds himself strangely more at home in Rwanda, and enraged with the outside world: global apathy, media blindness, arms suppliers, the foreign aid donors afraid to offend the corrupt Rwandan government, the UN officials who do nothing, the International Monetary Fund’s complicity in the country’s social crises, the first-world’s inability to comprehend the realities of third-world poverty. At times it rails against the injustice of what was allowed to happen, challenging us to take action rather than allow injustice to flourish. Courtemanche, a campaigner for action in the third world, is fascinated by the potential for an alternative global economy, and our capacity to change the world. “I use journalism as a political tool to change things,” he says.
Yet A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is not journalism, and Courtemanche also gives voice to his characters’ lust for life. “My job is to talk about awful things so we don’t do them again. But I know all the beautiful things. That’s why in the novel I put dinners and parties.” He wanted to write a book about beautiful people who lived through terrible things and yet were full of lust for life.
Patricia Claxton, who translated the novel into English and is twice a winner of the Governor General’s Award for translation, describes Courtemanche as someone who writes in a café and doesn’t come home much. David Homel in Books in Canada described him as a “take-no-prisoners kind of writer, a man who can be found in his favourite café in Montreal… surrounded by an overflowing ashtray and several cups of black coffee.” His literary heroes include John le Carré, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and Joseph Conrad. He calls himself a “pervasive romantic” and says, “There is nothing in life but love that is important.”
He is a columnist with the Montreal daily newspaper Le Devoir, and is writing a second novel. A French feature film production of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is underway.
Reading Group Guide
“Look, for people who’re going to be dead soon, we’re not doing too badly.”
“The novel of the year” is what La Presse called this extraordinary book, a love story that takes place in the days leading up to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. A first work of fiction by one of French Canada’s most admired journalists, Gil Courtemanche, it was first published in Quebec in 2000, spent more than a year on bestseller lists and won the Prix des Libraires, the booksellers’ award for outstanding book of the year. Rights were sold to publishers in over twenty countries in Europe and around the world. This humanist story of an unlikely love affair set against a holocaust has become an internationally acclaimed phenomenon, worthy of comparison with the work of Graham Greene and Albert Camus.
The swimming pool of the Mille-Collines hotel, Kigali, in the early 1990s, draws a regular crowd of assorted aid workers, strutting Rwandan officials, Belgian businessmen, French paratroops and Canadian expats. Among them is Bernard Valcourt, a documentary filmmaker from Quebec, on a mission to set up a television station in the capital. Valcourt, who for two decades has earned his living from wars and famines, lingers around the pool drinking warm beer and watching football; but most of all, watching Gentille, a beautiful young waitress, who is a Hutu but often mistaken for a Tutsi because of her family’s strange history.
The trouble coming stems from a long conflict, instigated in colonial times by Whites who treated Tutsis as superior to Hutus. The Hutu government is now openly encouraging violence against Tutsis. The physical traits of the Tutsis make them easy prey, but they are not the only ones in danger. Too many people are already dying in Rwanda daily: of AIDS, of malaria, and increasingly at roadblocks at the hands of drunken militia, or pulled from their homes. The hotel staff and prostitutes sense trouble and death drawing closer as they continue providing drinks and meals and sex.
The story of this developing catastrophe is revealed through the lives of a handful of Rwandans who befriend Valcourt. They confide in him because he listens, and because his interviews offer them a chance to try to change the way things are by telling the world. Their candour and warmth begin to make his heart glow. He meets people like Méthode, who knows a bloodbath is brewing and would rather die of AIDS in the comfort of a hotel room than by a machete. Threatened, frightened, sick, they don’t want to talk and act like they’re dying. Poor as they are, they want to have some moments of pleasure and celebrate life.
As Kigali life continues in its resourcefulness and persistence, Valcourt is falling in love with Rwanda, and with Gentille, who loves him because he sees her as no-one has seen her before. Even as the worst horrors begin, as friends are raped and murdered, he starts to feel a strange peace in this land of a thousand hills, though he repudiates the outside world for its failure to intervene. Because Gentille is thought to be Tutsi, her life is in danger. Still, no-one can believe that the extremists will go too far, that brothers and sisters will kill brothers and sisters, and that 800,000 civilians will be massacred.
A hard-hitting chronicle of an overlooked chapter of recent history, told with skill and compassion, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is also a celebration of living in the moment, of the integrity of friendship and the courage of everyday heroes. Harrowing, unsettling, challenging, but beautiful and moving, it is a book that cannot leave the reader untouched; as a Quill & Quire reviewer said, it is “full of real people that demand to be remembered.”
1. Courtemanche has said: “People say to me it’s the first time they feel Africa, it’s 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 Valcourt’s relationship with Gentille? How does their love story fit with the terrifying depictions of rape and murder? How did you feel about Valcourt’s 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.