From Kigali to Montreal: Gil Courtemanche Breaks Out
The Quebec novel in French has long been an inward-turning thing, a place of intimate landscapes, with little concern for the big picture of historical realities. Rare are the works of fiction that open up the closed rooms of the traditional themes of family oppression and madness. Yet all the while, Quebec readers, while happy to inhabit these spaces, must have been secretly longing for larger horizons. How else could you explain the critical and commercial success of Gil Courtemanche's Un dimanche a la piscine a Kigali (+ditions du BorTal, 284 pp, $24.95 paper, ISBN: 2764600712), a novel set in the Rwandan capital in the weeks and days before the genocide?
First of all, you have to understand that Courtemanche did not come out of nowhere, and that he's a profoundly political animal. He worked for RenT LTvesque in the 1960 Quebec provincial election. He laboured for the NDP in the days when that party had a kind of existence in the province. He served as a journalist for the daily paper La Presse and at Radio-Canada. He was one of the founders of the independence-minded paper Le Jour. Along the way he has established a reputation as an irascible, fire-breathing, take-no-prisoners kind of writer, a man who can be found in his favorite cafT in Montreal, the Romolo, surrounded by an overflowing ashtray and several cups of black coffee.
Fiction doesn't necessarily come naturally to Courtemanche, and Un dimanche, which will come out in English next year with Random House in a translation by Patricia Claxton, is a documentary-style novel. His previous books were all political chronicles, ways of taking the pulse of Quebec society through its electoral behaviour, or the world's pulse according to the various overseas postings he has had. His work in black Africa led him to produce an award-winning film, The Gospel of AIDS, about how the disease is stunting development on that continent. For example, in Zambia, some 60% of copper miners either have AIDS or are HIV-positive, yet copper is that country's main export. The economic effects of the disease are obvious. In Kigali, the capital of Rwanda where the novel's action is set, Courtemanche estimates that the infection rate stands around 35% of the population.
The spectre of AIDS haunts this book, yet the disease is so common that it's treated as something quotidian, the way we might consider the flu during the winter season. And the Rwandans' reaction to it is anything but tragic. Those who have the disease want to celebrate what remains of their life, and celebrate as vibrantly and as outlandishly as possible, rather than lament their fate. Those who will read this novel when it comes out in English, and I hope they will be numerous, are in for some astonishing pages on the subject of love and death.
It would be all but impossible to create a light-hearted work about the massacre of the Tutsis at the hands of the Hutu-led government, but Un dimanche (the full title means "a Sunday at a swimming pool in Kigali") has enough love, fantasy and joy in it to make the proceedings anything but painful. Virtually all the characters in the story are on the verge of becoming ghosts, but they seem almost unconcernedłor at least resigned. They are moved by the fatalism of those places in the world where death comes early, and stays late. Courtemanche likes to quote that John Le CarrT line from The Little Drummer Girl: "To stay normal, we must act like heroes." From that point of view, this is a book of heroes, and that includes the French-Canadian main character Valcourt, who chooses (but do we ever really choose to love?) to ally his fate with Gentille, a young Tutsi woman who works at the hotel where all the whites come to stay and play.
What drives Courtemanche's book are the traditional tenets of Greek tragedy: fear and pity. Fear because we know that the killing is inevitable, and can do nothing to stop it. And pity in the classical sense, in which our emotions join those of the actors, like Gentille, Valcourt and all the others who scratch out a living around the swimming pool of a Kigali hotel. But not all the characters herein possess a greatness of soul. On the contraryłand here Courtemanche's strong moral presence takes over. He is bitterly critical of the narcissism of Western aid agencies, of the Africans who imitate them in attitude and in style, of the Belgians, French and Germans who have come to Rwanda to skim off whatever cream is left. "I can't write without pointing out the moral lessons," he says. "Writing is a political and moral choice; it is my judgement as a citizen." It's been a long time since I've read a novel with such a pronounced moral voice, but Courtemanche has seen from close up a lot of things we haven't, and he knows exactly where he stands. And when it comes to the events in Rwanda, it would be very hard to argue against his positions.
But like many moralists, Courtemanche turns out to be an optimist, a humanist even, and that's no mean feat for someone who's worked in the places he has. "The horror is never as great as humanity is. The proof," he smiles briefly, "is that we as human beings are still here. Look at the Jews and the Armeniansłtwo targets of past genocides. They're in more secure shape than they've ever been."
David Homel is a novelist whose most recent work is Get on Top (Stoddart).