Cover image for A Sunday at the pool in Kigali
Title:
A Sunday at the pool in Kigali
Author:
Courtemanche, Gil.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Dimanche à la piscine à Kigali. English
Edition:
First United States edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, [2003]

©2003
Physical Description:
259 pages ; 22 cm
Language:
English
Added Author:
ISBN:
9781400041077
Format :
Book

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Summary

Summary

"Look, for people who're going to be dead soon, we're not doing too badly." "The novel of the year" is what La Presse called this extraordinary book, a love story that takes place in the days leading up to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. A first work of fiction by one of French Canada's most admired journalists, Gil Courtemanche, it was first published in Quebec in 2000, spent more than a year on bestseller lists and won the Prix des Libraires, the booksellers' award for outstanding book of the year. Rights were sold to publishers in over twenty countries in Europe and around the world. This humanist story of an unlikely love affair set against a holocaust has become an internationally acclaimed phenomenon, worthy of comparison with the work of Graham Greene and Albert Camus. The swimming pool of the Mille-Collines hotel, Kigali, in the early 1990s, draws a regular crowd of assorted aid workers, strutting Rwandan officials, Belgian businessmen, French paratroops and Canadian expats. Among them is Bernard Valcourt, a documentary filmmaker from Quebec, on a mission to set up a television station in the capital. Valcourt, who for two decades has earned his living from wars and famines, lingers around the pool drinking warm beer and watching football; but most of all, watching Gentille, a beautiful young waitress, who is a Hutu but often mistaken for a Tutsi because of her family's strange history. The trouble coming stems from a long conflict, instigated in colonial times by Whites who treated Tutsis as superior to Hutus. The Hutu government is now openly encouraging violence against Tutsis. The physical traits of the Tutsis make them easy prey, but they are not the only ones in danger. Too many people are already dying in Rwanda daily: of AIDS, of malaria, and increasingly at roadblocks at the hands of drunken militia, or pulled from their homes. The hotel staff and prostitutes sense trouble and death drawing closer as they continue providing drinks and meals and sex. The story of this developing catastrophe is revealed through the lives of a handful of Rwandans who befriend Valcourt. They confide in him because he listens, and because his interviews offer them a chance to try to change the way things are by telling the world. Their candour and warmth begin to make his heart glow. He meets people like Méthode, who knows a bloodbath is brewing and would rather die of AIDS in the comfort of a hotel room than by a machete. Threatened, frightened, sick, they don't want to talk and act like they're dying. Poor as they are, they want to have some moments of pleasure and celebrate life. As Kigali life continues in its resourcefulness and persistence, Valcourt is falling in love with Rwanda, and with Gentille, who loves him because he sees her as no-one has seen her before. Even as the worst horrors begin, as friends are raped and murdered, he starts to feel a strange peace in this land of a thousand hills, though he repudiates the outside world for its failure to intervene. Because Gentille is thought to be Tutsi, her life is in danger. Still, no-one can believe that the extremists will go too far, that brothers and sisters will kill brothers and sisters, and that 800,000 civilians will be massacred. A hard-hitting chronicle of an overlooked chapter of recent history, told with skill and compassion, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is also a celebration of living in the moment, of the integrity of friendship and the courage of everyday heroes. Harrowing, unsettling, challenging, but beautiful and moving, it is a book that cannot leave the reader untouched; as a Quill & Quire reviewer said, it is "full of real people that demand to be remembered."


Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In recounting the 1994 massacre of Rwanda's Tutsis by the majority Hutus, Courtemanche fictionalizes the thoughts and actions of real participants, but the horrors he describes were all too real. At the story's center lies the improbable love that blossoms between Canadian journalist Bernard Valcourt and Gentille, a shy Hutu waitress at Kigali's Mille-Collines Hotel. Valcourt and Gentille speak out against the brutal attacks that presage the genocide but make no headway with corrupt police, impotent UN forces, oblivious Western media outlets, and postcolonial Belgians and French who helped sow the seeds of racial superiority in Rwanda and then retreated when they bore deadly fruit. It's a powerful political novel about important world issues, which hardly ensures an audience here. As Valcourt notes, In my country the sickness is complacency. In France it's arrogance, and in the United States it's ignorance. That this book would introduce many U.S. readers to events that killed some 800,000 people underscores how fatal our willful ignorance of foreign affairs can be to the world's powerless. --Frank Sennett Copyright 2003 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

Bernard Valcourt is a Canadian journalist in Rwanda planning a film on the local AIDS epidemic when he falls in love with Gentille, a Tutsi who works at his hotel at the time of the Hutu-led genocides. Chronicling the days of the government-sponsored atrocities, Courtemanche's novel is powerful in its ability to remind us how much the myth of race has done to divide and destroy the human species in the past hundred years. At the same time, however, it strains to position itself as a sort of neo-existentialist tome, quoting Camus and echoing The Plague. Valcourt describes himself without irony as "sophisticated... an enlightened humanist," and yet his childish self-pity and bitter refusal to accept life's harsh realities are less the trappings of a great intellectual than the alcoholic he obviously is. From the swimming pool terrace of the H?tel des Mille-Collines in Kigali, he observes the rapidly deteriorating situation, "rather like a buzzard on a branch... waiting for a scrap of life to excite him." His supposedly spiritual love for Gentille is intended to redeem him, but it most often takes the form of a rhapsody over her "perfect" body. The Rwanda painted by Courtemanche (a Canadian journalist himself) is a country bloodied by ignorance, hatred, sexual obsession and lust for power, as terrifying and darkly obscene as anything imaginable. Tragic and deeply touching at turns (and illuminating from an historical perspective), the novel is nevertheless cheapened by Valcourt's muddled sentimentalizing and adolescent grandiloquence. As Einstein said, everything is either meaningless or miraculous. Most often it's romantics who, becoming cynics, embrace the former. (Oct. 14) Forecast: The best book on the Rwanda genocide is still Philip Gourevitch's nonfiction work We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, but Courtemanche's novel should stimulate lively debate and serve as useful supplementary reading. Rights have been sold in 13 countries, and movie production is underway with Lyla Films. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Rwanda in the 1990s is as daunting a setting for a novel as one could choose, but Canadian journalist Courtemanche uses his time there to craft a compelling examination of humanity's heart of darkness. Through the eyes of his alter ego, Bernard Valcourt, we are given tribal genocide, murder, rape, and intentional HIV infection in unsparing detail. Valcourt falls in love with a young Rwandan he meets at his hotel's swimming pool, and their troubled plight drives the plot through a landscape of chaos. Though this is fiction, Courtemanche sticks to the public record, depicting the Hutu-led brutality against the Tutsi in a simultaneously frenzied and mundane manner. Sex and death are so entwined that a dying man's mother encourages a young woman to gratify him sexually before he passes, and in another scene a man rejoices when he finds out he will be executed after having sex with his wife in front of his tormentors. Despite the horror, there are parallel, if less frequent, moments of camaraderie, compassion, and selfless love. Winner of Canada's Prix des libraires du Qu?bec in 2000, this book is recommended for all public and academic libraries.-Edward Keane, Long Island Univ. Lib., Brooklyn (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One 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 Hôtel 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 and hotel in lascivious disorder lies the part of the city that matters, that makes the decisions, that steals, kills, and lives very nicely, thank you. The French Cultural Centre, the UNICEF offices, the Ministry of Information, the embassies, the president's palace (recognizable by the tanks on guard), the crafts shops popular with departing visitors where one can unload surplus black market currency, the radio station, the World Bank offices, the archbishop's palace. Encircling this artificial paradise are the obligatory symbols of decolonization: Constitution Square, Development Avenue, Boulevard of the Republic, Justice Avenue, and an ugly, modern cathedral. Farther down, almost in the underbelly of the city, stands the red brick mass of the Church of the Holy Family, disgorging the poor in their Sunday best into crooked mud lanes bordered by houses made of the same clay. Small red houses -- just far enough away from the swimming pool not to offend the nostrils of the important -- filled with shouting, happy children, with men and women dying of AIDS and malaria, thousands of small households that know nothing of the pool around which others plan their lives and, more importantly, their predictable deaths. Jackdaws as big as eagles and as numerous as house sparrows caw all around the hotel gardens. They circle in the sky, waiting, like the humans they're observing, for the cocktail hour. Now is when the beers arrive, while the ravens are alighting on the tall eucalyptus trees around the pool. When the ravens have settled, the buzzards appear and take possession of the topmost branches. Woe betide the lowly jackdaw that fails to respect the hierarchy. Birds behave like humans here. Precisely as the buzzards are establishing their positions around the pool, precisely then, the French paratroopers on the plastic deckchairs begin putting on Rambo airs. They sniff all the feminine flesh splashing around in the heavily chlorinated water of the pool. Its freshness matters little. There is vulture in these soldiers with their shaven heads, watching and waiting beside a pool that is the centrepiece of a meat stall where the reddest, most lovingly garnished morsels are displayed alongside the flabby and scrawny feminine fare whose only diversion is this waterhole. On Sundays, as on every other day of the week at around five o'clock, a number of carcasses -- some plump, some skeletal -- disturb the surface of the pool, well aware that the "paras," as the paratroopers are known, are not the least daunted either by cellulite or by skin clinging to bones merely from habit. The women, if they knew what danger stalked them, would drown in anticipation of ecstasy or else get themselves to a nunnery. This tranquil Sunday, a former minister of justice is warming up energetically on the diving board. He does not realize that his strenuous exercises are eliciting giggles from the two prostitutes from whom he is expecting a sign of recognition or interest before diving into the water. He wants to beguile because he doesn't want to pay. He hits the water like a disjointed clown. The girls laugh. The paras too. Around the pool, Québécois and Belgian aid workers vie in loud laughter. The Belgians and Québécois aren't friends; they don't work together, even though they are working toward the same goal: 'development.' That magic word which dresses up the best and most irrelevant of intentions. The two groups are rivals, always explaining to the locals why their kind of development is better than the others'. The only thing they have in common is the din they make. There ought to be a word for the atmosphere surrounding these Whites who talk, laugh and drink in a way that makes the whole pool know their importance -- no, not even that -- just their vacuous existence. Let's use the word 'noisiness' because there's certainly noise, but it's continuous, there's a permanence to it, a perpetual squawking. In this shy, reticent and often deceptive country, they live in a state of noisiness, like noisy animals. They are also in continuous rut. Noise is their breathing, silence their death, and the asses of Rwandan women their territory of exploration. They are noisy explorers of Third World asses. Only the Germans, when they descend on the hotel in force like a battalion of moralizing accountants, can match the Belgians and Québécois in noisiness. Important Frenchmen don't stay at this hotel. They dig themselves in at the Méridien with high-class Rwandans and clean hookers who sip whisky. The hookers at this hotel are rarely clean. They drink Pepsi while waiting to be picked up and offered a local beer, which may get them offered a whisky or a vodka later on. But these women are realists, so today they'll settle for a Pepsi and a john. Valcourt, who is also Québécois but has almost forgotten it over the years, observes these things and notes them down, muttering as he does so, sometimes angrily, sometimes with tenderness, but always audibly. For all anyone knows or imagines, he's writing about them, and everyone wants someone to ask him what he's writing, and worries about this book he's been writing since the Project left him more or less high and dry. Sometimes he even pretends to be writing, in order to show he's alive, watchful and serious like the disillusioned philosopher he claims to be when he runs out of excuses for himself. He's not writing a book. He writes to put in time between mouthfuls of beer, or to signal that he doesn't want to be disturbed. Rather like a buzzard on a branch, in fact, Valcourt is waiting for a scrap of life to excite him and make him unfold his wings. At the end of the terrace, walking slowly and grandly, appears a Rwandan just back from Paris. You can tell, because his sporty outfit is so new its yellows and greens are blinding, even for sunglass-protected eyes. There's sniggering at a table of expatriates. Admiration at several tables of locals. The Rwandan just back from Paris is afloat on a magic carpet. From the handle of his crocodile attaché case dangle First Class and Hermès labels. In his pocket, along with other prestige labels, he probably has an import licence for some product of secondary necessity, which he will sell at a premium price. He orders a "verbena-mint" at such volume that three ravens depart the nearest tree. Gentille, who has just completed her social service studies and is interning at the hotel, doesn't know what a verbena-mint is. Intimidated, she whispers -- so softly she can't even hear herself -- that there are only two brands of beer, Primus and Mutzig. The Rwandan on his magic carpet is not listening and replies that of course he wants the best, even if it's more expensive. So Gentille will bring him a Mutzig, which for some is the best and for everyone more expensive. Valcourt scribbles feverishly. He describes the scene with indignation, adding some notes about the outrageousness of African corruption, but he does not stir. Excerpted from A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.