The Red Ants: The Evolution of a Novel

Martin PevsnerCurious Book Fans are grateful to author Martin Pevsner for revealing to our readers the creative process and the background of his second novel The Red Ants.

This last twelve months have been a time of great change for me. After fourteen years teaching English language at a local further education college in Oxford, mainly to asylum seekers and refugees, I quit my job. I found a new one a few weeks later. For the first time since graduating over twenty-five years ago I have found employment in a non-teaching capacity. It feels very liberating.

Equally exciting, I had my first book published this time last year, a novel called Divinity Road (Signal Books), set mainly in Oxford and Africa, that sought to describe the vulnerability of life as an asylum seeker (see review here). Needless to say much of the inspiration for the novel came from my relationships with students over the years.

My latest novel, The Red Ants, also draws on my years in teaching and the students I have known, in particular those students from Rwanda whose lives have been blighted by the 1994 Genocide.

One such student, a young man, had been sent by his parents to Belgium the year before the killings began. By the time they were over, he’d lost all seven of his siblings as well as both parents and many other relatives. In UK he was studying for a master’s degree relating to human rights law and he asked me to help proof-read the thesis he wrote on the Genocide. I remember that what struck me most about his research was just how meticulously the Genocide was planned by the perpetrators in charge. For example, businessmen close to the government imported hundreds of thousands of machetes up to a year before the massacres started.

I met other Rwandans through my teaching, some more damaged than others, less able to come to terms with what they had experienced, but all somehow surviving, dealing as best they could with their new lives abroad.

I began to read up on the background to the Genocide. There are a number of accessible accounts of the tragedy, some first-hand, others more academic, as well as feature films and TV documentaries. They helped me to understand the political background to the terrible events and the logistical organisation of the killings by those in charge. However, those leaders could not have succeeded without the cooperation of the majority of ordinary citizens and so all my research led to the same obvious question: why do ordinary people commit such extraordinarily bad acts, particularly when part of a larger group? The Red Ants seeks to examine this question (without attempting in any way to answer it).

It is worth reminding ourselves of the staggering statistics surrounding the Rwandan Genocide. On April 6 the Rwandan President was assassinated. In the following 100 days between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandans were massacred out of a population of 7.3 million, that is something around 10% of the population. The vast majority of victims were from the minority Tutsi social group, though the smaller Twa group and Hutu moderates who would not take part in the killings were also targeted. Even taking the lowest figures, 500,000 deaths in 100 days works out at 5,000 per day, over 200 per hour, around four per minute.

And what makes it all the more gruesome is that this was no Holocaust conveyor-belt murdering, no hidden gas-chamber-to-crematorium efficiency. This was open-air, nothing-up-my-sleeves butchery, blood-on-hands carnage with door-to-door machete murder, roadblock machine-gunning, hand grenades tossed into crowded school buildings and churches.

The trauma that individuals experienced is incalculable, but the long-term effect on the nation’s development is no less devastating. The Genocide created an estimated 400,000 orphans. The use of rape as a tool of war increased the prevalence of HIV and other STIs considerably. These factors have had a catastrophic effect on the country’s economic and social development (and the development of neighbouring countries, not least the DR of Congo, where violent conflict still prevails).

And then there is the question of reconciliation, the need for peace balanced against the survivors’ need for some kind of reckoning. And the practicalities of post-Genocide life, those survivors living side by side with their attackers.

As I learnt more about the Genocide and began to consider it as a subject for a novel, it was the ‘Why do ordinary people…?’ question that loomed largest in my mind. If I wanted to focus on this question, I felt I needed to universalise the events, so I built into the planning three key features.

Firstly I set the story in an unremarkable backwater of an unnamed country that resembled, but was not, Britain.

Secondly I employed a second-person-singular voice, a ‘you’ narrator that would draw from the readers a more direct response, that would ask a hypothetical ‘Where would you stand?’ question.

Finally, having placed the Genocide in a modern non-specific setting, I would need to consider any changes that this new environment might bring to the course of events, the most obvious one being how new technology might affect the implementation of, and fight against, a genocidal massacre.

The time framework I chose to set the work in was the short period up to and beyond the beginning of the killing. Within these limitations, I wanted to investigate a variety of social settings and so I needed a central protagonist with a licence to roam. The creation of Mole as a character followed, someone young enough to be accepted wherever he goes and with a hole at the centre of his ethnic identity. It was through him that I wanted to explore the issue of culpability, and it was important that there be no clear-cut conclusions – who knows how each of us would react in such a situation?

It was through the process of developing all of the above issues that The Red Ants was born. I currently have a first 60,000-word draft on which I am working. I am looking for a publisher. You can read Prologue here.

The Red Ants: The Evolution of a Novel
by Martin Pevsner

3 Comments on "The Red Ants: The Evolution of a Novel"

  1. Feroza
    20/12/2011 at 22:04 Permalink

    I love the ideas.I hope you find a publisher with the good sense to see its value. I look forward to reading it.

  2. Muna Ahmed
    04/03/2012 at 19:46 Permalink

    oh!! great thinking, I like this Martin. I am sure it will be a successful book, I look forward to reading it. congratulation!! for the previous book that I am proud of.
    I would like to say an important thing here that the college has lost the greatest teacher I have ever seen in my life.


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