A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali
Gil Courtemanche
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Buy *A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali* online

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali
Gil Courtemanche
(translated by Patricia Claxton)
272 pages
October 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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A beautifully written story, which is more autobiography than fiction, but I suspect no newspaper was interested in this journalist’s eye-witness account of a people betrayed in a preventable Holocaust. Cushioning what happened in Rwanda in a work of fiction is the only catharsis Gil Courtemanche could achieve. In his dedication of the book, he names those in real life whom he does not disguise with pseudonyms in the actual story, and as it turns out, the lovely but tragic Gentille was a very real person. Originally written in French, none of this journalist’s imagery and lyrical phraseology is lost in Patricia Claxton’s English translation. Maybe she even enhanced it.

Curled Up With a Good BookAt first, Courtemanche’s description of the Canadian UN Force Commander as the “weak general” angered me for, from today’s perspective, it is an unfair judgment, but if I were in this journalist’s shoes at the same time in history with the same background knowledge he had then, I too would have been furious at the UN general’s apparent ineffectiveness to prevent the genocide of a race, the Tutsis, and their moderate Hutu sympathizers by extremist Hutus that followed. I was in Rwanda in 1994 covering the humanitarian relief program for UNIMIR. I arrived at a time when we finally had a different perspective of this “weak general.” The UN refused to give him permission to take action, and he has suffered inconsolable guilt as a result. Nevertheless, this “weak” general risked his life and his career to stay with the people he came to love by disobeying the UN's command to come home once the genocide began. He was told to let the civil war take care of itself. He and his small Canadian Force willingly disobeyed orders and refused to leave, and he telephone a Canadian CBC broadcaster every night so the News Room could hear the screams as he gave a nightly report.

Eventually the Tutsi rebels achieved what the UN did not--overthrew the barbarian hordes orchestrating the genocide--to make it safe for replacement UN Forces to land in Kigali. Millions of Hutus, fearing retribution, flooded the borders of Zaire and finally grabbed the attention of CNN. By this time, the UN and Canadian Military did not dare court-martial the general and his small band of Canadian peacekeepers, who stayed and risked massacre to bring humanitarian relief and eventual retribution. This general was not "weak". He was powerless. There's a great difference. Major General Romeo Dallaire (whom Courtemanche never names in the story) had courage few military commanders on UN missions have shown today. I feel Courtemanche could have added a footnote, as he does with many historical explanations for what he writes, to clarify his original perception of the “weak general.”

Once I read the story I had to leave it until I could deal with the memories in writing a review of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. The love story of a Canadian foreign correspondent, Bernard Valcourt, and the beautiful Hutu, Gentille, who had Tutsi features and elegance, is set against the societal corruption exemplified by those who gather around the local hotel pool: relief workers, Belgian peacekeepers, Rwandan middle-class, refugees and prostitutes. Here, the middle-aged Valcourt observes the disintegration of society turning on itself, while the adoring love of his much younger amour brings him alive. They plan their wedding in the midst of carnage, but eventually he can’t protect her. During an escape attempt, members of the Hutu militia assault him and capture Gentille. In real life, Courtemanche never learned what happened to Gentille, but Valcourt finds her after the genocide ends—a ruined, broken and diseased woman, who begs Valcourt to leave her to die in peace.

The love story takes on a life of its own as Valcourt attempts to explain what is happening to the world around him that’s falling apart. There are many passages like these: “Watch out—men are turning into dogs and worse still than dogs and worse still than hyenas or the vultures on the wind making circles in the sky above an unwary herd.”

In light of death, Courtemanche emerges a philosopher. The "white" man tries to teach the African to live, while he waits to die. What the "white" man fails to realize, he writes, is that you can live only if you know you are going to die. Says one character, Cyprien: “You think we don’t value life as much as you. So tell me, Valcourt, poor and deprived as we are, why do we take in our cousins’ orphans, and why do our old people die with all their children around them?”

There is much we can learn from the people we marginalize in Africa.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Bonnie Toews, 2004

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