||A Review of: A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali
by Andrew Steinmetz
After Auschwitz there can be no art
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a love story set in Rwanda during
the April 1994 genocide. True to formula, this final solution' of
the machete and club was organized and implemented according to
plan: in just 100 days, the mass killing of the Tutsi minority by
the Hutu majority claimed 800,000 lives. Early on, one Rwandan
character in the novel intones:
"The world has known the scientific Holocaust, cold, technological,
a terrifying masterpiece of efficiency and organization. A monstrosity
of Western civilization. The original sin of the Whites. Here, it
would be a barbarian Holocaust, a cataclysm of the poor..."
The German philosopher Theodore Adorno is famous for claiming that
after Auschwitz no one can make art, but his is the type of
proclamation that will always remain more provocative than true.
Primo Levi survived Auschwitz, and made art. One could argue that
Levi made art out of it. And the poet Paul Celan, after a long
struggle, finally mangled his oppressor's language into poetic form.
Moreover, these days Adorno's turn of phrase has become a piece of
pop art itself, as witnessed by the number of times it has been
glibly bandied about by the mainstream media and entertainment
industry, by artists and news commentors alike, after the events
of September 11th. Indeed, at the time, Adorno's death knell loaned
a degree of self-importance to figures like Steven Page of The
Barenaked Ladies who questioned aloud during a CBC documentary
whether or not he, for one, could dance and sing again post 9/11.
All this considered, the roots of a genocide are implausible grounds
for a novel, let alone a love story. What Courtemanche has done is
make art drawing on eyewitness reports and the author's own previous
experience, as a journalist on assignment in Africa for Montreal's
pro-separatist newspaper Le Devoir. When Courtemanche returned to
Kigali after 1994 he discovered that many of his Rwandan friends
had been swept away in the maelstrom.' A Sunday at the Pool in
Kigali, an irreverent requiem, is dedicated to them.
In his Preface, Courtemanche writes:
"This novel is fiction.Some readers may attribute certain
scenes of violence and cruelty to an overactive imagination. They
will be sadly mistaken. For proof, they have only to read the seven
hundred pages of eyewitness reports gathered by the African Rights
Organization and published under the title Rwanda: Death, Despair
and Defiance (African Rights, London, 1995).
Even so, many readers will be offended by the graphic nature of
this novel that has much to do with blood and lust and shows its
true berserk colours in scenes of uncontrolled bloodlust. Courtemanche
describes human savagery with such a tone of casual detachment that
the brutality comes across as a routine aspect of human behaviour,
perhaps, as all too real.
After his admonition to the reader, we are led directly into Rwanda's
heart of darkness which, for Courtemanche, is found by the poolside
of Htel des Milles-Collines. The hotel represents an enclave of
security and luxury in the midst of the menace of Hutu militiamen,
who are swarming the hills, drawing up their lists, and closing in
on the capital. Milles-Collines is also the setting for that typical
kind of expatriate dissolutenes which, in the context of Rwanda's
divisionism' (a word synonymous with ethnic hatred), doubles as the
harbinger of the depravity yet to unfold.
Courtemanche unsparingly sets the scene in his opening paragraph,
displaying an impatience with propriety and political correctness:
"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 Htel 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 in lascivious disorder lies the part of the city that matters,
that makes the decisions, that steals, that kills, and lives very
nicely, thank you."
This setting, as well as the English translation of the novel's
title-A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali-is slyly reminiscent of George
Seurat's painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande
Jatte (1884-86). Seurat's pointillist masterpiece displays a setting
adopted by the Parisian middle class as a place of collective
recreation and epitomizes the bourgeois life-style of the period.
The poolside cocktail hour at Htel des Milles-Collines is perhaps
intended as a sardonic comparison. The scene is full of the boredom
of a parasitic culture.
Courtemanche's indictment of this habitual clientele' is unabating.
Expanding on a conceit which sees members of development agencies
and corrupted local officials as interdependent parts of a vicious
cycle, Courtemanche blurs the distinction between aid and AIDS by
having international workers and local disease carriers mingle at
the poolside, with devastating effects.
The climax of this world-play comes in the sacrificial form of the
white and pregnant wife of an official from the Canadian Department
of External Affairs (himself in Rwanda to review health services).
Marie-Ange latches on to a black pool attendant named Justin who
conceals his real hatred (he has AIDS) for the boss ladies who are
fascinated by the barbarous, powerful Negro'. When Justin takes
Marie-Ange for a private massage, the result is not pretty. Here
is Courtemanche's depiction of their pool-shed quickie:
"The man pressed against her back and just above her nape she
felt an enormous penis thrusting into her hair. Two hands were
kneading her breasts so vigorously they began to squirt milkJustin
picked her up by the armpits, lifted her and pushed her to the
wallwith a single brusque, violent movement he entered her the back
way. Never had anybody touched or caressed this part of her body,
even by accident. Muscle exploded, cried out. Her belly struck the
The mind we inhabit, as readers, is that of Bernard Valcourt, the
novel's protagonist. A veteran journalist and a Qubcois (like
Courtemanche himself), Valcourt is as bored with famines as he is
with whores. This time around in Africa, Valcourt has come to Rwanda
to set up a television station financed by the Canadian government,
with a primary focus on community health, which means AIDS.
Valcourt is a resident of Htel des Milles-Collines, no better, no
different from the vulture-like Belgian paratroopers, the UN staff,
all the whites who crowd around the watering hole of their private
safari park to drink bottles of Primus and watch the local scenery.
Courtemanche is steadfast in his application of clichs and dyspeptic
candour: aid workers are spoiled, diplomats are ignorant, soldiers,
for the most part, impotent. Rwandans are introduced, true to
formula, as either Tutsi or Hutu. Their tribal identities are fixed,
as they had been under German and Belgian rule. Racial stereotypes
are key to Courtemanche's characterizations. For example, here is
Valcourt's Rwandan counterpart, the television journalist, Lo:
"Rwandans are good at putting on a front. They handle concealment
and ambiguity with awesome skill. Lo is a caricature of all this:
Hutu father, Tutsi mother. Tutsi body, Hutu heartCountry talk,
clothes of a fashionable Parisian. Skin of a Black, ambitions of a
Courtemanche's protagonist, while bitter, is an idealist at heart.
He finds solace in Paul luard (1895-1952), a French poet and one
of the founders of Surrealism. And he is able to fall in love-not
just in any old place or time, but smack in the centre of a genocide.
Valcourt encounters his love interest in Gentille Sibomana, a
waitress at the hotel. The young Gentille immediately gains Valcourt's
attention, and why not: her breasts abrade her starched shirt-dress',
her ass is impudent'.
Outside of Valcourt's fantasy world, Gentille is described as a
Hutu in a Tutsi's body. She carries a Hutu identity card and the
tall, slender figure of a Tutsi. As the disruptions to civil life
in Rwanda increase, Gentille's fate becomes symbolic of Rwanda's.
Made from two warring factions, eventually she, like her country,
will be mercilessly torn apart.
An explanation of Gentille's complicated lineage comes to the reader
via a big book' discovered by Gentille's great-grandfather, and
written by a Belgian doctor who tells the history of the African
peoples by scientifically applying leading theories of morphology
and anthropology'. This is the most convoluted part of the novel.
Valcourt himself is cynical about the racist theories, yet he and
Gentille remain prisoners of the stereotypes as long as they remain
Instead of escaping the country, the two lovers leave behind the
capital and the impotent white noise of an ever present and blathering
CNN to venture into the hills and eventually find Gentille's country
homestead. The tension increases page by page as the two encounter
impatient militiamen at road blocks and harrowing chants of Kill
the Cockroaches!' (Tutsis are the Cockroaches'.)
Rwandans, both Hutu and Tutsi, are resigned to the inevitable. A
Belgian teaching philosophy at the university explains it to Valcourt
this way: "They have to kill each other at regular intervals.
Its like the menstrual cycle: a lot of blood flows, then everything
returns to normal." Equally cynical, a Rwandan warns Valcourt:
"It won't be a war for television. You won't be able to stand
fifteen minutes of our wars and massacres." And likewise,
chapter to chapter, Courtemanche does not make it easy on his
But the love story at the centre of the novel, impossibly sweet at
times, and at times insufferably French (Valcourt, in one scene,
brings Gentille to climax by reading to her from luard), keeps the
reader on track. For beyond the bile directed at the aid industry
and the lavish scenarios of hate, Courtemanche and his lovers seek
a mysterious sort of beauty wound up with the most sordid details
of human acts.
The ending is disappointing. It attains a spurious harmony, a quality
that Adorno did not relish in art. Gentille falls victim to unspeakable
crimes while Bernard remains in Rwanda and lives with a Swedish
woman, who is herself an employee of the Red Cross. Perhaps, having
been witness to the Afrian holocaust, Courtemanche is merely pointing
out that Adorno's ideals no longer apply. Perhaps for Courtemanche
art is that which brazenly, shockingly, but accurately, mirrors the
obscenity of real life. Courtemanche may be accused of overindulgence
and exhibitionism, as he anticipates in the preface. Is he being
provocative or is he an artist recovering from his own private
experiences in Rwanda, an artist, who, like the UN General he mocks,
remains in post-traumatic shock for the very acts he witnessed, and
in mourning for the lives he could not save.