A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

By Gil Courtemanche

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a novel set in Rwanda during that country’s collapse into anarchy in 1994. Near the end, the hero, a Quebecois journalist working in Rwanda named Bernard Valcourt, drives through streets filled with murderous gangs. At one point he sees a camera crew stopping to film the rape of a woman dying amid a pile of corpses at the side of the road. As the rapist/cameraman throws his head back in ecstasy, Valcourt recognizes his best native student.

It is a moment of recognition that stands as an epitome of most of what the novel has to say – and any novel with this heavy a moral and political background is one that has a lot to say. The camera reminds us of the Western response to the genocide, which was to watch it on TV. That the rapist is Valcourt’s best student suggests a certain ambiguity in the role of the West as teacher (in fact, the antagonism between Tutsi and Hutu was an early colonial lesson). Overhead, the circling ravens and buzzards identify the human violence below with a state of nature red in tooth and claw.

Most of all, however, the roadside rape is a savage rehearsal of the novel’s two obsessions: sex and death. The nightmare version of sex and death is rape and murder. The Rwanda Courtemanche describes is one that seems mostly populated by prostitutes and killers, a sort of predator-prey relationship that is eventually taken to its extreme in the genocide. And in the case of AIDS, which is the slow-motion human disaster rolling underneath the bloodier events in the book, sex literally equals death. A young man dying of AIDS makes the metaphor explicit in his video testament, describing AIDS as being “like a country that catches all the defects of its sickest people” and himself as a “mirror, your double who’s rotting from inside.”

As a positive contrast to all of this there is the love story between Bernard and Gentille, a Hutu woman who is another symbolic figure. Her father describes her as “a mysterious mix of all the seeds and all the toil of this country,” and claims that by marrying her Bernard will be marrying Rwanda. Sex with Gentille is the stuff of poetry, accompanied by the verse of Paul Éluard and full of idealistic sweet nothings. Sex and death are poetically equated in orgasm, with Bernard as the teacher not of journalism but desire. At his hands Gentille learns to “die with ecstasy,” joining Bernard in a sexual “mutual suicide.”

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, which has been translated from the French by Patricia Claxton, is a well-intentioned but preachy book. Rwanda’s “disease” is diagnosed as the will to power, while Canada’s is complacency. Bernard as the jaded newsman who goes native is something of a cliché. Characters tend to make speeches rather than engage in dialogue. Love and hate are almost mystical forces that possess people and not psychological facts. The action progresses through a series of tableaux without creating any real suspense. There is a lot of anger, most of which is directed at ignorant and selfish whites, but one is left with a novel that is less a specific indictment than an act of bearing witness.

Review first published May 17, 2003.


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