A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali supplies a setting seething with passions, revenge, greed, and all manner of corruption, within which a poignant love story somehow endures, even blossoms.

Bernard Valcourt, in his forties, is a Radio Canada producer who accepts the job of setting up a television station in Rwanda. Twenty-two-year-old Gentille, with “dewy-morning, cafe-au- lait skin ... and everything else to drive him a little crazy,” works as a hotel waitress “so embarrassed by her beauty that she has never smiled or spoken an unnecessary word.” Gentille is trapped in an ethnic split-identity dilemma that at once isolates her, accounts for Valcourt’s initial reluctance to seek her out, and cuts to the heart of her country’s angst.

In Rwanda, beauty is indeed skin deep. Two tribes, the Watusis (Tutsis) and the Bahutus (Hutus), have been at loggerheads for three centuries. A Hutu by birth, Gentille has an identity card to prove it, but intermarriages between tribes within her family have left her looking like a sculptural Tutsi, tall, pale, and fine- featured. As the Hutu violence against the Tutsi minority begins, Gentille makes her first approach to Valcourt. When at last, but not always convincingly, they recognize their love and decide to wed, the fury has already consumed many of their friends.

Gil Courtemanche describes these machete murders almost casually, adding to their force. However, he holds back nothing in a ten-page chronicle of the happy-go-lucky life and violent death of the AIDS-infected tobacco seller Cyprien. While Valcourt tries to teach him how to live while waiting to die, Cyprien pities the white Valcourt, eaten up by the futility of living. In Rwanda, he philosophizes, “you can live only if you know you are going to die. Here it is normal to die. Living a long time is not.”

Cyprien’s words describe well the bittersweet tone of this splendid novel, in whose preface Courtemanche claims, except for his own, to have retained the actual names of victims and perpetrators of the genocide.