A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

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A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali By Gil Courtemanche, Translated by Patricia ClaxtonWhen I saw the award winning film “Hotel Rwanda” as an in-flight movie it made me want to know more about the Rwandan genocide. I was ashamed that I’d not paid more attention and felt that in order to make some kind of retribution for that ignorance, the least I could do was to look for books on the topic. “A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali” went onto my Amazon wish-list along with another called “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families“. Both stayed on the list forgotten for a while until my periodic review of the wish list (otherwise known the ‘what’s cheap this time?’ check) meant I spotted a bargain copy through one of Amazon’s private sellers and I snapped it up.

Did the book live up to expectations?

I expected to be shocked, disgusted and horrified because it’s hard to imagine a book about such events could be anything other than brutal. It’s fair to say I got all that in bucket-loads but not always in the ways I’d expected. If you are easily shocked you might want to stop reading now or just skip the rest of this paragraph. PLEASE – don’t come back later and tell me you weren’t warned. If this book were a film it would have to carry an adult rating because it’s absolutely packed with sex, violence but in this case such issues ARE necessary to the plot and it’s hard to write about the book without touching on these topics. The sex is harsh, brutal and shocking – both when rape is used as a weapon and when the author examines the role of AIDS in the destruction of Rwanda. The most shocking examples that stick in my mind range from situations the protagonists have chosen to find themselves in, to ones that are forced upon them. There’s the bizarre but touching kindness of the family paying a prostitute to visit their son as he’s about to die of AIDS in his friend’s hotel room. Just before he takes the morphine his friends have bought for him he says “Even rich people in the United States don’t have beautiful deaths like this”. Then there’s the arrogant and heavily pregnant diplomat’s wife having her way with the beautiful black pool-boy whilst unaware that he’s knowingly infecting her with HIV; there’s the man forced to have sex with his wife whilst a dozen men who have already raped her look on and attack him with machetes; and finally the man filming the final moves of a woman who lies dying in front of him puts down his camera and rapes her dead but still warm body.

This is a book that dredges such depths of human depravity but yet still retains an immense sense of compassion. The book could be sensationalist but the sheer horror of the reality of what happened in Rwanda makes it an uncomfortable but compelling read. I am fully convinced that this is not exaggerated for effect – it’s just a fair reflection of a one of Africa’s darkest times.

The book is fiction but clearly it is rooted in a good dose of fact – let’s call it ‘faction’. The characters are all real people who existed although many are now dead. In some cases the names of the characters and the things that happen to them may not match up but the overall impression is solid. There’s nothing in the book that didn’t happen but it won’t necessarily have happened to the named people.

So what’s the plot?

Yes I know it’s a bit weird to have written so much without telling you what the book is about but it’s not the plot that you remember after reading this because in many ways it’s the oldest story in the book – boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, life throws up obstacles, boy loses girl and ………. well I think that’s enough. You’ll have to read it to find out if love will conquer all or whether evil will win through. The characters are there to carry the story and it’s the events that happen around them that make this such an unforgettable book.

“…this is a book that brings home the horror of genocide elegantly and memorably…”

The main character is a Canadian film-maker called Valcourt who finds himself in Rwanda working on a documentary about the impact of AIDS and HIV on the country. He’s making videos of dying men and women, working with groups trying to promote the safe-sex message and trying to raise awareness inside and outside the country. It’s clear to readers that without the massacre, Rwanda was already in serious trouble from the rapid spread of AIDS and from the general rejection of safe-sex.

The tale is set around the pool of the Hotel des Mille Collines which will be familiar to viewers of Hotel Rwanda as the hotel that gave refuge to Tutsis during the killings – the same pool that was drunk dry by the refugees. The pool however is just a symbol – you won’t get a the Hotel Rwanda story – this is a much different look at the Genocide.

Valcourt takes a detached position as an observer of the depravity around him – watching the lewd behaviour of the prostitutes and pool boys, the tourists and the expatriates, the gang leaders and local business men. But his detachment can’t be maintained after he falls in love with Gentille, a beautiful waitress at the hotel. Many of the events of the genocide take place around Valcourt and Gentille as they plan their wedding and visit her family just as the events of many of history’s worst horrors must have taken place whilst people hung out their washing, took the dog to the vet or practiced the piano. Gentille’s family has a dark secret that threatens her life because whilst she is registered as a Hutu, she looks like a Tutsi, all of this due to her grandfather’s amateur eugenics experiments. In the interests of giving his children and grandchildren the best opportunities in life he gave up all that he had to get them good marriages to the fairest skinned Tutsis that he could find. When the Hutus start killing their Tutsi ‘cockroaches’, what hope is there for a girl whose features put her on the wrong side of the line?

Do I recommend it?

Absolutely – this is a book that brings home the horror of genocide elegantly and memorably and delivers more of a punch than a pure factual account could ever hope to. However it is unremitting in its horrors and it’s not a book for anyone with a weak stomach. You will read things you may wish you hadn’t – and that’s something to consider carefully before you get yourself a copy.

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche, translated from the French by Patricia Claxton

Published by Canongate Books


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Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (A)
by Gil Courtemanche

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Written by koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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