Gil Courtemanche

"A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali "

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 30, 2003)

"Millions of us are going to die. Of AIDS, of course, of malaria too, but most of all from a worse sickness for which there's no condom or vaccine. This sickness is hate. In this country there are people who sow hate the way ignorant men [with AIDS] sow death."

Every Sunday afternoon in Kigali, Rwanda, the pool at the Mille-Collines Hotel is a gathering spot for government workers, wealthy Rwandans engaged in various trades, aid workers, journalists, foreign visitors, and enterprising prostitutes, who gather to drink, exchange news, gossip among themselves, and participate in the "vaguely surrealistic play being acted out at the pool." The pool is, in many ways, a microcosm of life in Rwanda, illustrating the pressures and competing interests among various facets of society, all wanting to protect what they already have, at the very least, and, they hope, to increase their power, influence, or wealth.

Read excerptThrough these people who visit the pool, all of whom were real and who are described with their real names, Gil Courtemanche, a former journalist in Rwanda himself, boldly illustrates the growing resentments and fears which tear apart the fabric of society and lead to the genocide of almost a million Tutsi people in 1994. Using his own eyewitness stories and those distilled from over seven hundred pages of reports by the Africa Rights organization, he provides a setting seething with passions, revenge, greed, and all manner of corruption, within which a delicate love story, touching and unconventional--perhaps even improbable--manages to flourish.

This is not easy reading, however attractive the love story may be. Courtemanche exposes the corrupt government of Rwanda; the venal politicians who facilitate the illegal activities of their relatives and friends and help them set up monopolies; the self-serving Belgian security service, a leftover from the Belgian occupation; the public prosecutor, who refuses to listen to accusations against those in power; the Catholic church, which allows terrorist camps near its college because it fears confrontation; the Canadian general and the UN functionary who refuse permission to seize huge arms deposits destined for those bent on genocide; and the French, who not only sell arms to the terrorists but train them to be more efficient. Adding to the problems, the Rwandan government denies the AIDS problem, and hospitals find themselves with two or three persons to a bed, no antibiotics for weeks, and finally, not even an aspirin for patients.

Still, Courtemanche finds beauty in the countryside and a sense of family and honor among ordinary citizens, and it is within this recognition of beauty that the love story flourishes. Bernard Valcourt, in his forties, is a Radio Canada producer who accepts the job of setting up a TV station in Rwanda for a Canadian international development agency. Gentille, working as a waitress at the hotel after completing her social service studies, is a beautiful young woman in her twenties, "so embarrassed by her beauty she has never smiled or spoken an unnecessary word," and Valcourt has long admired her from afar. As the Hutu violence against the Tutsi minority begins, Gentille makes her first approach to Valcourt, begging him for help. A Hutu by birth, she has an identity card to prove it, but the intermarriages between Tutsis and Hutus within her family have left her looking like a Tutsi-tall, pale, and fine-featured. Because of the plethora of forged identity papers, government officials will not believe that she is who she says she is, and even Valcourt is somewhat disbelieving. "If he, a White who considered himself unprejudiced and free of any preconceived hatreds, did not believe her, what Rwandan would take this piece of cardboard seriously when it declared the opposite of what she showed to such perfection?"

The love of Valcourt and Gentille is particularly poignant because neither can believe the other could possibly be truly in love. Valcourt fears that this lovely young woman will leave him for someone younger and more attractive; Gentille believes that this thoughtful, considerate Canadian will abandon her for someone less troublesome and better educated. When at last they recognize their love and visit with Gentille's family outside of Kigali, the genocide has started, and many of their friends have already been hacked to death, yet Valcourt is "able to say, without ifs, ands or buts, 'I'm happy.'"

Courtemanche's lyrical nature imagery throughout the novel is in sharp contrast to the horrors of the torture and genocide of Tutsi men, the rape and mutilation of their women, and the maiming of their children. He is brutally honest and graphic in his depiction of the cruelties, but he also recognizes that "People who butcher human beings by spearing and slashing with bayonets are all [basically] upright, respectable folk. And when circumstances don't lead them to war they close their eyes to injustice-no, they organize injustice. And when they don't organize it, they tolerate it, encourage it, abet and finance it." And this includes the UN "peacekeepers" and the Canadian consul, who, when Valcourt presents her with some facts of the murder and genocide, responds with, "There are some things intellectuals like you won't ever understand. Minor crises over individuals must never destabilize relations between states. You're too sentimental to live in this country."

Courtemanche tells a powerful story which has received little attention, especially in fiction. Through the story of Gentille's ancestors, he traces the history of the Belgian occupation and the Tutsi/Hutu hatred. Through their friends, he shows the character of the Rwandan people in the city and in the countryside. Through the action, he portrays life at the hotel, life within the power structure of Kigali, and the role of foreigners in both ameliorating and exacerbating the inherent tensions and social problems, providing the reader with a full and vibrant picture of this complex society. The lyricism of his descriptions of nature contrast with the most profound horror of the genocide, and the AIDS epidemic and its devastation, as seen in stories of Valcourt's friends, add further darkness to this sad, continuing saga. Atrocity gains a human face here, and love takes on new meaning and value. Though some readers may question Valcourt's actions at crucial moments near the end of the book, no one can question Courtemanche's courage in telling this story and in naming names.

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Read a chapter excerpt from A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali at MostlyFiction.com



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About the Author:

Gil CourtemancheGil Courtemanche (Jjjill Cortmonsh) is a well-known French Canadian journalist specializing in international and third-world politics, and an author of several non-fiction works.

Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali spent more than a year on Quebec bestseller lists, has been translated to many languages and is being adapted for a feature film. He has also made an award-winning film called 'The Gospel of AIDS'. Coutemanche is working on a second novel.

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