Chapter 11: The bottom of the cesspool - Gil Courtemanche
They think we’re simple children:
Watermelon in the sun,
Shooting dice and shoouting,
Always having fun.
Langston Hughes, This Puzzles Me
To make his case on Rwanda and extrapolate on his own experience in that country, Gil Courtemanche chose to write a novel. His novel is also, in his own words, “an eye-witness report”, 106 even though he was not in Rwanda when the events take place. His manœuvre is clever since he can accuse real people of heinous crimes even while they are being tried in Arusha, sitting in prison or in exile, or living as political refugees in Europe and America. He then hides behind his licence as novelist as soon as someone presents a fact contradicting his allegations. It is also clever because he can drop all inhibitions to his imagination and fantasies - it could also be described as bragging - about Africa, the Africans and especially the African women he claims to know.
A work of non-fiction would have required much more research, investigation and checking of facts, allegations and quotes, to ensure their veracity. Courtemanche would have had to be rigorous throughout. Knowing that his lack of rigour made him vulnerable to criticism about his unbridled imagination since he was not in Rwanda in 1994, he tries to pre-empt critics in the preface by referring to the African Rights publication entitled Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance (African Rights, London, 1995). Readers should of course know what Belgian Professor Filip Reyntjens, known internationally for his work on Rwanda, has written about the group African Rights. “As for African Rights, the political and historical analyses made by that group have a flagrant pro-RPF bias that is incompatible with the mission and code of conduct of any serious association devoted to promoting human rights.” 107
Sunday at the Pool has won numerous literary awards. Critics have extolled it as “extraordinary”, “elegiac”, “astonishing”, a “masterpiece”, a “fresco with humanist accents”, “novel of the year”. A close read however leaves no doubt that Courtemanche’s novel is a pure reproduction, and in my opinion a poor reproduction, of the popular literary tradition that Africans have always categorically rejected. Even the supposedly modern narration of his imagined amorous encounters is as old as the hills of Rwanda. Similar titillating accounts appeared in popular British and French literature in the late 19th century, such as L’art d’aimer aux colonies published steadily until the late 1930s. That book was very popular… 100 years ago.
Courtemanche unabashedly describes his main character Bernard Valcourt as “sophisticated” and “a man of the left and an enlightened humanist” (unabashedly because Bernard Valcourt is obviously Courtemanche himself). What shocks and astonishes most is how such “an enlightened humanist” can make his own Western world seem so far apart from and superior to Africa.
The former world is “civilized”. It is a world of justice and reason and of laws and regulations that are respected; a world of abstract thought and poetry. His world is also sexless, that is until it comes into contact with Africa. The latter world, Africa, is one of total disorder, a world in which instinct rules and, in the absence of abstract thought, only concrete words are used. It is a world in which fertile and over-sexed bodies danse, “humans turn into demons”, and where there is only “fire and screams rising from the hell [the Rwandans] had created”. It is a “hysterical country where madness was settling as the normal condition of life” and that “only deserved to die, it had gorged so greedily on lies and false prophesies”. That is exactly how Courtemanche describes Rwanda.
The author also uses his characters to widen the gulf between the two worlds, and especially the hero Bernard Valcourt who is made into a stalwart defender of everything that is good. He is contrasted to the words, actions, experiences and belief of his Rwandan friends, his lover Gentille and his enemies. Courtemanche’s method is well worn as the following examples show.
To defend a dead prostitute, Valcourt risks his life by reporting the incident to the assistant chief prosecutor who he describes as a “vicious hyena” in this “ridiculous republic”. Valcourt does not do it because he is brave, as his lover Gentille suggests to him, but only because he “can’t behave any other way”, because he “acts by reflex, because that’s the way one ought to in a civilized society”. Courtemanche does not shy away from using the old word “civilization” to describe his world in contrast with the uncivilized world he is now living in.
“I’m like a child who follows a book of rules. You excuse yourself when you bump someone by mistake… you help the blind across the street,… you get up on the bus and give your seat to an old lady… and when you witness a crime you go to the police so the crime will be solved and in due course justice will be done. No, my darling. I’m not brave. I’m just trying to do things right, and here, that’s not easy.”
A little further on, he says that he would go and testify before the courts and stand ready to serve justice “if ever justice exists here as it does in the vicinity of Lafontaine Park, Monsieur Deputy”.
For the Westerner Valcourt/Courtemanche, justice and citizenship, along with the incumbent rights and duties, are second nature. They have become totally ingrained in his culture, which it seems only Westerners can assimilate. They are like a book of rules - in the original French version they are a catechism - learned from infancy by all. On the other hand, the book of rules in Rwanda, its catechism, according to Courtemanche, is hate, violence, bewitchment, all contained in a culture of impunity, a culture of lies and concealment transmitted from one generation to the next.
The author’s cultural arrogance and superiority has sadly been seen before. Rudyard Kipling was the most notable representative with his “White man’s burden”. In the French tradition, Roger Caillois was a flag bearer of this cultural superiority. What is the difference between Valcourt’s statements and those of Caillois that Aimé Césaire so roundly denounced in his historical Discourse on Colonialism published in 1955. Caillois, a member of the Académie française, blindly and bluntly defended the cultural, scientific and religious superiority of the West.
“That discipline of life which tries to ensure that the human person is sufficiently respected so that it is not considered normal to eliminate the old and the infirm… whether for biological or historical reasons, there exist at present differences in level, power and value among the various cultures. These differences entail an inequality in fact. They in no way justify an inequality of rights in favour of the so-called superior peoples, as racism would have it. Rather they confer upon them additional tasks and an increased responsibility.” 108
For Caillois it was the “discipline of life”, for Courtemanche, “a book of rules”, but in both cases it is superior. Césaire points out that the “increased responsibility” that Caillois would grant to his superior culture is nothing more than the task of ruling the world!
The “civilized” culture also includes morals and ethics. Valcourt is a man tortured by the great moral and existential questions of our time, and the concomitant quest for good, whereas he is surrounded by reckless, happy-go-lucky, simple-minded Africans. For example, Courtemanche’s noble but tormented hero, Valcourt, is contrasted to the AIDS-infected tobacco vendor, Cyprien who is always happy and carefree, whose ambition is to “to have fucked (all the women) before dying”, and who likes Valcourt because he “could listen for hours and hours and talk without ever preaching”. Cyprien tells Valcourt: “I’m going to tell you what always gives you such a long, serious face… What I want to say is, you get us thinking. We feel from your eyes what you see in your head. You see dead bodies, skeletons, and on top of that you want us to talk like we’re dying. I’ll start doing that a few seconds before I die, but until then I’m going to live and fuck and have a good time.”
Without Valcourt, Cyprien cannot think. Even though he is dying, he lives on happy-go-lucky, fucking, laughing and drinking, with no worries about tomorrow, no thoughts about the people around him.
This type of infantilization of Africans is also not new. The French tradition had its “petit noiraud” advertisements (“Y a bon BANANIA”, “chocolat battu et content”). The Anglo-American tradition has its minstrel shows, Amos and Andy and the Black face. Loathsome though it may be, it is a not-too-subtle way for Courtemanche to demonstrate his own contempt for the African Republic he so obviously scorns. The representatives of the Republic are all “rotund”, “fat”, “dripping with sweat”, and they choke in their too-tight suits, and hard collars that make their necks bulge. Government ministers, bureaucrats and soldiers are unfailingly drunk, weaving about unsteadily, laughing with their “eyes rolling up in their sockets” while dancing and “dispensing HIV like parish priests their indulgences”. Contemptible, the whole lot for our “sophisticated man of the left”.
Gil Courtemanche infanitilizes all Africans, including his former colleague at CBC/Radio-Canada, Léo Kalinda, who was originally from Rwanda. Even though Kalinda, like Courtemanche, strongly supported the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s take-over of Kigali, he is not spared. The author of the Sunday at the Pool transposes a real event that took place in 1987 to the 1994 period. “Léo, who was making a film on the great Rwandan democracy, was moving about from table to table distributing smiles and lies like a Negro Maurice Chevalier in a bad musical comedy”. Not far from the minstrel show! Is it possible for an African be an intellectual? Courtemanche thinks not since he puts the word “intellectual” in quotation marks when it is beside the word “African”. 109
Describing Africa through the story of a woman - Africa ‘the strange woman’ as described by Hammond and Jablow - may be old and worn, but it always makes for titillating copy, whatever the historical period. The European or North American discovers himself and really becomes a man through his experience with an African woman. (In the same vein, Kipling wrote: “Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst, Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments, an’ a man can raise a thirst”.) The author then uses his experience to explain Africa to his readers. The reader inevitably learns more about the writer than about Africa, whereas the writer falls head first into the worst clichés.
Sunday at the Pool, whose author’s avowed mission is to “write this country’s (Rwanda’s) story through the story of Gentille and her family”, is therefore predictably cliché-ridden. Wittingly or not, Courtemanche uses every imaginable cliché. Justin, the almost bestial African lifeguard who hits on a white Quebec woman has “an enormous penis”, and he is contrasted to Jean Lamarre, her “over-modest husband who always came to bed clothed in pyjamas and never took them off, even when laboriously making love to her”. The white characters’ bodies are never described, but the Africans’ bodies are all described to the last detail. The authors’ friends bodies are beautiful, his enemies’ bodies are ugly, but all African bodies are caricatured.
Courtemanche’s obsession with African bodies is a backdrop that gives relief to the work of the European mind. Valcourt is a man of letters and of intellect who is able to teach his lover Gentille “to come with words”, which it seems no African could do. Gentille, who is “like the fruit of the red earth of this hill, a mysterious mix of all the seeds and all the toll of this country” in which the women “had only concrete words”, only learns abstract thought and the beauty of poetry thanks to the good efforts of the poet and humanist Bernard Valcourt, and to his favourite writer, Paul Éluard.
What presumption! What does Courtemanche know about poetry in Kinyarwanda, in Swahili or in any other African language? What does he know about the relations and emotions among Africans? And what does he know about African art and creativity? Either he knows very little or he holds them in such contempt that they warrant not a word. It should also be assumed that Paul Éluard, who along with others signed the denunciation of the human spectacles prior to the 1931 French colonial exhibition, would have been disgusted to see himself conscripted into Courtemanche’s tale.
As in all popular books on Africa, the images of the bucolic African countryside and luxuriance are used to emphasize the never-ending descriptions of violence, death and sex. In this book, these descriptions border on necrophilia. Either the novelist does not know that war means gory death - despite modern American propaganda - or, like Conrad and Gourevitch, Courtemanche is also troubled with African humanity. The answer is in the question itself, and there is no doubt in my mind that Courtemanche has a problem with African humanity. Over and above the countless bestial adjectives and metaphors used, the author alludes to the inhumanity of Rwandans at least fourteen times, such as in the following excerpt from the original French version which the translator chose to exclude fearing perhaps that it could get the author into trouble: “Valcourt fut horrifiée par la pensée que rien dans cet homme ne lui avait paru humain...” (“Valcourt was appalled at the thought that nothing in this man appeared to him to be human…”) 110 The other thirteen references appear in English.
To borrow from Chinua Achebe’s important essay on Conrad, I ask the same question: how can a novel that celebrates the dehumanization of a portion of the human race be so widely and uncritically praised?
The slave trade, slavery and colonialism and slavery existed because in the eyes of the slave traders, slave owners and colonizers, Africans were inferior and less human. Slavery and colonization were therefore a blessing for these beings.
If Sunday at the pool in Kigali had been written in 1902, it would have been swept away by the epic cultural and political fight that ended colonialism and resulted in African independence. Today we would view the novelist and his book as underpinnings of colonialism that are much better forgotten. But the novel appeared in 2000, forty years after colonialism supposedly ended. The fact that the book and its author have been so widely eulogized speaks loudly about our refusal to recognize the seriousness of the crimes committed not so long ago.
106 Gil Courtemanche, op. cit.
107 Filip REYNTJENS, Trois jours qui ont fait basculer l’histoire, L’Harmattan Paris et Institut Africain-CEDAF, 1996, p 62, note 109.
108 Aimé Césaire, “Discours on colonialism”, Monthly Review Press, 1972, p. 53.
109 Courtemanche, op. cit. p. 75. “By now Valcourt knew all to well the pleasures derived from solemn sermons, pompous speeches and long orations by so many African “intellectuals” to dare interrupt.
110 Gil Courtemanche, Dimanche à la piscine à Kigali, Boréal Compact, 2000, p. 118. The English translation of this excerpt leaves out the reference to the humanity.