The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent

Death And The Pool

Book Review

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche
Publishers Cannongate. Price £7.99

Anthony McIntyre • 29 October 2004

Gil Courtemanche, without his direct experience and observation of daily life in Kigali, the Rwandan capital, would most likely never have found the ideational inspiration to attempt the groundbreaking novel that would win him many prizes. The all too rushed early assessments by some reviewers pressed to meet deadlines, failed to stand in the way of the book's critical acclaim. 'Readable' seemed to be the extent of some of their imaginations. It was that for sure, translated into at least 14 languages and a bestseller worldwide. Its 258 pages breathe, sometimes heavily because of the central place given to sex in the narrative. Each breathe is a tense affair. The reader is instantly aware that there is only one place this can lead to. And whatever its form the conclusion can only ever come to the rasping sound of a death rattle. There is a need to finish the book but also an apprehension. Happy endings don't grow from ground littered by the seeds of genocide.

Fear, hope, despair, love, revenge, sensuality and hatred are the emotions and sensations that converge on the ‘maelstrom’ in which the author lost so many Rwandan friends. A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a deceptive title in its almost soothing appeal. Sundays and pools feed the imagination with visions of lazing and lolling. Add the Rwandan heat and the scene could easily be set for a novel steeped in lethargy. But Kigali in 1994 was anything but lethargic. Large sections of society were being organised for the purpose of butchering their neighbours, urged on by the police, government, church pastors, and the malice-laden tones of Valerie Bemeriki and her high society colleagues on Radio Hate. 'The work has only begun. This time it mustn't stop before we are finished. We must eradicate the enemy. A little music and we''ll be back with the latest news.' The call was heeded and the death was dished out in liberal quantities - doctors turned on their patients, teachers their pupils, pastors their flock.

As the killing machine – the poor, lacking the technology of the gas chamber or the B52, kill with the machete, Courtemanche reminds his readers - drank freely from the blood of its victims on every hill and in every street, the water content of the pool in the Hotel des Mille-Collines depleted as those who sought refuge there gulped it down to ward off death from thirst. A point was reached when the pool, like the society that hosted it, was drained. Kigali, as observed through the eyes of Courtemanche, under the stifling heat of a debilitating Rwandan sun, blends water and blood as both ebb away in equal measure to the ebbing humanity of a society in the grip of man made terror.

Much of Courtemanche’s novel is set around the edges of the pool at the Hotel des Mille-Collines before the point of pool draining and mass murder was reached. Its status as a refuge for the many desperates seeking to avoid the swing of the machete propelled the Hotel to world recognition. European decadence lazed there – whether in the form of French paratroopers or consular staff. The great and the good of Rwandan society took their place beside the refreshing water. Both mingled with the prostitutes who had made the grade and who on occasion were murdered, 'falling' from one of the balconies, having provoked the ire of one of their powerful and protected clients. Trying to extract from the police any information about a murdered and disappeared prostitute was a futile exercise for Bernard Valcourt, a Canadian writer, through whom much of the narrative runs. Determination held him in the country. He loves Gentille. They marry, having already adopted a child whose parents and two siblings had been slashed to death by Hutu militia. Gentille is a Hutu but nature gave her the features of a Tutsi. Her account is frequently doubted at roadchecks, her identity card dismissed as counterfeit. Her destiny in a land where doubt means death drives the reader on to discover her fate.

Sex clings to Courtemanche's narrative. It is forever accompanied by the spectre of AIDS. Women are casually penetrated by the flesh of their lovers and just as quickly by the scythe of the grim reaper. Butchers and butchered are pulled together in a macabre dance of death. It did not discriminate between Hutu and Tutsi. Fatalism held court – ‘dying was simply one of the things you did one day ... look, for people who’re going to be dead soon, we’re not doing too badly.' Elsewhere, in a switch to paradox, AIDS lubricates the journey to the happy death of a disc jockey ravished by the disease. Giving into it, surrounded by friends and carressed by a hooker, was an end much preferred to that delivered by the machete. The setting brought a touch of Camus to Kigali.

Rwandan men hated the condom, most refusing to wear it. Sometimes white women were seduced and purposefully infected with the disease. Revenge of the Africans on the Europeans -'giving white women back an illness that had been inflicted on black men.' Each infected woman, in the mind of the disease depositor, was viewed with as little pity as the German soldier in the crosshairs of a Soviet sniping rifle at Stalingrad. It had its own logic. Fees introduced for higher education to meet the demands of the structural adjustment programmes of the Western powers forced young women into prostitution. In Valcourt's words, ‘this new supply of fresh pussy on the market caused the AIDS propagation rate to skyrocket.’ When the diplomat Lamarre protests in defence of the IMF, Valcourt dismisses him: 'a structural adjustment hospital is a place where one pays for one’s death.'

In this novel there was no paying to die; death came gratis. Courtemanche manages to narrate his tale as if he wrote while perched on a poolside tree. In the middle of it but above. There was no other way to tell this story. It is a book to be read by a pool on a hot summer Sunday. Enjoy while you read, for you may not enjoy what you read.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
- George Bernard Shaw

Index: Current Articles

29 October 2004

Other Articles From This Issue:

Questioning Collusion
Mick Hall

Mary Kelly’s Protest ‘An Act of Passive Resistance’
Ruairi O Bradaigh

Death and the Pool
Anthony McIntyre

John Kerry: The Wrong Choice on November 2nd
Patrick Hurley

The Emerging Case for a Single State in Palestine
Todd May

The Clash Thesis: A Failing Ideology?
M. Shahid Alam

25 October 2004

European Social Forum
John O'Farrell

Democracy and the Internet
Mick Hall

Resistance And Survival: The Case Of Education And Free Software
Toni Solo

Jacques Derrida
Anthony McIntyre

'The Impact of the Middle East Conflict on Palestinian Children'
Queens University Friends of Palestine and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC)



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