Strength in What Remains might seem a companion piece to Tracy Kidder’s best-selling Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (2003). Farmer, whose foundation Partners in Health has reinvented health care delivery in some of the world’s poorest regions, figures briefly in this new book as a mentor to its central figure, Deogratias Niyizonkiza. Kidder in fact met Deo in Boston while researching Farmer’s history, though three years elapsed before he began investigating Deo’s own dramatic story. Deo escaped from the 1993-1994 ethnic genocides of Burundi and Rwanda, reinvented himself as an American immigrant, and, inspired by Partners in Health, returned to Burundi to launch his own public health initiative, Village Health Works. If Farmer exemplifies the mixture of American determination, ambition, energy, and idealism that Kidder has typically celebrated in works such as The Soul of a New Machine (1981) and Among Schoolchildren (1989), Deo led Kidder into what he termed “the land of Joe Conrad.This is the heart of darkness right here.” Deo’s painstaking and painful recovery of self after surviving the nightmare of history forms Kidder’s abiding subject.
The book’s title derives from William Wordsworth’s famous lines from “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” included as the book’s epigraph.
We will grieve not, rather findStrength in what remains behind
Though Deo’s six-month flight from Africa’s killing fields stands at both the literal and the figurative center of Strength in What Remains, his resilient spirit frames and contains the horror. Kidder situates the sections recounting the genocide and its aftermath as flashbacks within an account of the 2006 trip he and Deo made to Burundi. During this trip, Deo decided to stop retracing his earlier trauma in favor of building a clinic in his family’s new village, Kayanza, so that at least one Burundian community could begin to move away, as he had, from the paralyzing weight of the past.
Figuring out how to tell this story was no easy feat for either writer or subject. While the intensity of Deo’s psychic wounds posed their own constraints, Deo also expressed traditional Burundian antipathy to fabled “talking heads” whose garrulousness brings about their own destruction. Moreover, he struggled with a native taboo against gusimbura (the act of inflicting painful recollections on others). It is no wonder, then, that Kidder repeatedly hestitated when probing his subject’s memories and feelings, conceding the role of silence as both a refuge and a prison for his subject. Part of the book’s narrative involves Deo’s quest for a way out of the profound loneliness inflicted on him by his experiences and his difficulty communicating those experiences to those with whom he longs to connect. Language barriers oppress him as he struggles for the right English words to reconstruct his fractured identity while also bearing witness to the dead.
It was Deo’s postcolonial immigrant odyssey that originally enticed Kidder in 2005 to take up his story. Part 1 of the book, “Flights,” begins in May, 1994, with the plane trip (paid for by a wealthy friend) that propelled the traumatized survivor to the United States with two hundred dollars and a falsely secured visa in his pocket. There, he underwent homelessness and exploitation by unscrupulous employers before making the serendipitous decision to approach the person who would reverse this trajectory, former nun Sharon McKenna. Kidder alternates chapters on Deo’s rural upbringing in the Burundian mountains with chapters about his time in New York City.
With a novelist’s skill, Kidder conveys the immediacy of Deo’s inner life. Readers share Deo’s disgust at the squatters’ tenements where his friend Muhammed took him to live. (Even as he brought him to these tenements, Muhammed warned Deo to save his money for a quick return to Africa “because it is so hard here.”) Deo’s relief upon finding Central Park is also palpable. There, he could sleep under the summer sky rather than endure the violent shakedowns and daily human abasement of inner-city life. He met McKenna’s advocacy with a mixture of shame and gratitude that became outright wonder when she secured him an invitation to live with Charlie and Nancy Wolf. The academic couple eventually funded Deo’s...
(The entire section is 1874 words.)