Sponsored Collection

Atlantic Books for the Holidays

9780676974829_cover

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

by Gil Courtemanche

0 ratings
rated!
rated!
0 of 5
comments: 0
reviews: 0
tagged:
add a tag
Please login or register to use this feature.

list price: $21.00
edition:Paperback
category: Fiction
published: 2004
ISBN:9780676974829
publisher: Knopf Canada
imprint: Vintage Canada
View Excerpt
Awards
  • , Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
  • Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Award - Translation
close this panel
Description

“Look, for people who’re going to be dead soon, we’re not doing too badly.”
“The novel of the year” is what La Presse called this extraordinary book, a love story that takes place in the days leading up to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. A first work of fiction by one of French Canada’s most admired journalists, Gil Courtemanche, it was first published in Quebec in 2000, spent more than a year on bestseller lists and won the Prix des Libraires, the booksellers’ award for outstanding book of the year. Rights were sold to publishers in over twenty countries in Europe and around the world. This humanist story of an unlikely love affair set against a holocaust has become an internationally acclaimed phenomenon, worthy of comparison with the work of Graham Greene and Albert Camus.

The swimming pool of the Mille-Collines hotel, Kigali, in the early 1990s, draws a regular crowd of assorted aid workers, strutting Rwandan officials, Belgian businessmen, French paratroops and Canadian expats. Among them is Bernard Valcourt, a documentary filmmaker from Quebec, on a mission to set up a television station in the capital. Valcourt, who for two decades has earned his living from wars and famines, lingers around the pool drinking warm beer and watching football; but most of all, watching Gentille, a beautiful young waitress, who is a Hutu but often mistaken for a Tutsi because of her family’s strange history.

The trouble coming stems from a long conflict, instigated in colonial times by Whites who treated Tutsis as superior to Hutus. The Hutu government is now openly encouraging violence against Tutsis. The physical traits of the Tutsis make them easy prey, but they are not the only ones in danger. Too many people are already dying in Rwanda daily: of AIDS, of malaria, and increasingly at roadblocks at the hands of drunken militia, or pulled from their homes. The hotel staff and prostitutes sense trouble and death drawing closer as they continue providing drinks and meals and sex.

The story of this developing catastrophe is revealed through the lives of a handful of Rwandans who befriend Valcourt. They confide in him because he listens, and because his interviews offer them a chance to try to change the way things are by telling the world. Their candour and warmth begin to make his heart glow. He meets people like Méthode, who knows a bloodbath is brewing and would rather die of AIDS in the comfort of a hotel room than by a machete. Threatened, frightened, sick, they don’t want to talk and act like they’re dying. Poor as they are, they want to have some moments of pleasure and celebrate life.

As Kigali life continues in its resourcefulness and persistence, Valcourt is falling in love with Rwanda, and with Gentille, who loves him because he sees her as no-one has seen her before. Even as the worst horrors begin, as friends are raped and murdered, he starts to feel a strange peace in this land of a thousand hills, though he repudiates the outside world for its failure to intervene. Because Gentille is thought to be Tutsi, her life is in danger. Still, no-one can believe that the extremists will go too far, that brothers and sisters will kill brothers and sisters, and that 800,000 civilians will be massacred.

A hard-hitting chronicle of an overlooked chapter of recent history, told with skill and compassion, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is also a celebration of living in the moment, of the integrity of friendship and the courage of everyday heroes. Harrowing, unsettling, challenging, but beautiful and moving, it is a book that cannot leave the reader untouched; as a Quill & Quire reviewer said, it is “full of real people that demand to be remembered.”

close this panel
Excerpt

Chapter One

In the middle of Kigali there is a swimming pool surrounded by deckchairs and a score of tables all made of white plastic. And forming a huge L overhanging this patch of blue stands the Hôtel des Mille-Collines, with its habitual clientele of international experts and aid workers, middle-class Rwandans, screwed-up or melancholy expatriates of various origins, and prostitutes. All around the pool and hotel in lascivious disorder lies the part of the city that matters, that makes the decisions, that steals, kills, and lives very nicely, thank you. The French Cultural Centre, the UNICEF offices, the Ministry of Information, the embassies, the president’s palace (recognizable by the tanks on guard), the crafts shops popular with departing visitors where one can unload surplus black market currency, the radio station, the World Bank offices, the archbishop’s palace. Encircling this artificial paradise are the obligatory symbols of decolonization: Constitution Square, Development Avenue, Boulevard of the Republic, Justice Avenue, and an ugly, modern cathedral. Farther down, almost in the underbelly of the city, stands the red brick mass of the Church of the Holy Family, disgorging the poor in their Sunday best into crooked mud lanes bordered by houses made of the same clay. Small red houses -- just far enough away from the swimming pool not to offend the nostrils of the important -- filled with shouting, happy children, with men and women dying of AIDS and malaria, thousands of small households that know nothing of the pool around which others plan their lives and, more importantly, their predictable deaths.

Jackdaws as big as eagles and as numerous as house sparrows caw all around the hotel gardens. They circle in the sky, waiting, like the humans they’re observing, for the cocktail hour. Now is when the beers arrive, while the ravens are alighting on the tall eucalyptus trees around the pool. When the ravens have settled, the buzzards appear and take possession of the topmost branches. Woe betide the lowly jackdaw that fails to respect the hierarchy. Birds behave like humans here.

Precisely as the buzzards are establishing their positions around the pool, precisely then, the French paratroopers on the plastic deckchairs begin putting on Rambo airs. They sniff all the feminine flesh splashing around in the heavily chlorinated water of the pool. Its freshness matters little. There is vulture in these soldiers with their shaven heads, watching and waiting beside a pool that is the centrepiece of a meat stall where the reddest, most lovingly garnished morsels are displayed alongside the flabby and scrawny feminine fare whose only diversion is this waterhole. On Sundays, as on every other day of the week at around five o’clock, a number of carcasses -- some plump, some skeletal -- disturb the surface of the pool, well aware that the “paras,” as the paratroopers are known, are not the least daunted either by cellulite or by skin clinging to bones merely from habit. The women, if they knew what danger stalked them, would drown in anticipation of ecstasy or else get themselves to a nunnery.

This tranquil Sunday, a former minister of justice is warming up energetically on the diving board. He does not realize that his strenuous exercises are eliciting giggles from the two prostitutes from whom he is expecting a sign of recognition or interest before diving into the water. He wants to beguile because he doesn’t want to pay. He hits the water like a disjointed clown. The girls laugh. The paras too.

Around the pool, Québécois and Belgian aid workers vie in loud laughter. The Belgians and Québécois aren’t friends; they don’t work together, even though they are working toward the same goal: ‘development.’ That magic word which dresses up the best and most irrelevant of intentions. The two groups are rivals, always explaining to the locals why their kind of development is better than the others’. The only thing they have in common is the din they make. There ought to be a word for the atmosphere surrounding these Whites who talk, laugh and drink in a way that makes the whole pool know their importance -- no, not even that -- just their vacuous existence. Let’s use the word ‘noisiness’ because there’s certainly noise, but it’s continuous, there’s a permanence to it, a perpetual squawking. In this shy, reticent and often deceptive country, they live in a state of noisiness, like noisy animals. They are also in continuous rut. Noise is their breathing, silence their death, and the asses of Rwandan women their territory of exploration. They are noisy explorers of Third World asses. Only the Germans, when they descend on the hotel in force like a battalion of moralizing accountants, can match the Belgians and Québécois in noisiness.

Important Frenchmen don’t stay at this hotel. They dig themselves in at the Méridien with high-class Rwandans and clean hookers who sip whisky. The hookers at this hotel are rarely clean. They drink Pepsi while waiting to be picked up and offered a local beer, which may get them offered a whisky or a vodka later on. But these women are realists, so today they’ll settle for a Pepsi and a john.

Valcourt, who is also Québécois but has almost forgotten it over the years, observes these things and notes them down, muttering as he does so, sometimes angrily, sometimes with tenderness, but always audibly. For all anyone knows or imagines, he’s writing about them, and everyone wants someone to ask him what he’s writing, and worries about this book he’s been writing since the Project left him more or less high and dry. Sometimes he even pretends to be writing, in order to show he’s alive, watchful and serious like the disillusioned philosopher he claims to be when he runs out of excuses for himself. He’s not writing a book. He writes to put in time between mouthfuls of beer, or to signal that he doesn’t want to be disturbed. Rather like a buzzard on a branch, in fact, Valcourt is waiting for a scrap of life to excite him and make him unfold his wings.

At the end of the terrace, walking slowly and grandly, appears a Rwandan just back from Paris. You can tell, because his sporty outfit is so new its yellows and greens are blinding, even for sunglass-protected eyes. There’s sniggering at a table of expatriates. Admiration at several tables of locals. The Rwandan just back from Paris is afloat on a magic carpet. From the handle of his crocodile attaché case dangle First Class and Hermès labels. In his pocket, along with other prestige labels, he probably has an import licence for some product of secondary necessity, which he will sell at a premium price.

He orders a “verbena-mint” at such volume that three ravens depart the nearest tree. Gentille, who has just completed her social service studies and is interning at the hotel, doesn’t know what a verbena-mint is. Intimidated, she whispers -- so softly she can’t even hear herself -- that there are only two brands of beer, Primus and Mutzig. The Rwandan on his magic carpet is not listening and replies that of course he wants the best, even if it’s more expensive. So Gentille will bring him a Mutzig, which for some is the best and for everyone more expensive. Valcourt scribbles feverishly. He describes the scene with indignation, adding some notes about the outrageousness of African corruption, but he does not stir.

close this panel
Contributor notes

Gil Courtemanche is a journalist in international and third-world politics, and an author of several non-fiction works. Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali spent more than a year on Quebec bestseller lists. A film version directed by Robert Favreau was released in 2006.

Patricia Claxton is one of Canada’s foremost translators, who has worked with Gabrielle Roy, Nicole Brossard and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, among others.

close this panel
Editorial Review

“Courtemanche has written a novel that contains the kind of social criticism that still, almost 10 years after the terrible events, is sharp and pertinent. . . . The journalist in him has, thankfully, emptied himself, heart and all, into a love story full of real people that demand to be remembered.” -- Quill & Quire

“A fresco with humanist accents which could easily find a place next to the works of Albert Camus and Graham Greene.” -- La Presse
“Brilliant, anguished and righteous…. There are many unsettling qualities to Gil Courtemanche’s extraordinary novel. But above all, it is his insistence on love, and the right to live one’s life passionately and well, even in the face of AIDS and the genocide, this double helix of devastating African tragedies, that make this book great.” -- National Post

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a Heart of Darkness for today…. I don’t know what reader will read this book without feeling in some way morally tested.” Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi

“This novel is not only powerful and beautifully written. Corrosive, denunciatory, Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali also evokes the powerlessness and the complicity that permitted the [Rwandan] massacre to take place.” -- Le Devoir

“A voice that evokes humanity in all its depth and breadth, where executioner and victim are brother and sister, where death is a daily occurrence. A voice I implore you to listen to.... Through a felicitous mix of reportage and fiction, Courtemanche has powerfully portrayed a lucid character deeply engaged in a humanist quest…. The many facets of Bernard Valcourt’s eye constitute the richest prism of the book since he so ably expresses the complex malaise that can be the fate of a western white man faced with Rwandan culture in full decline.” -- Le Journal de Montreal

“A strong, assured voice…speaking of present day and tragic realities: AIDS and the Rwandan genocide–sicknesses of body and spirit with which men and women live, love, die and triumph.... A novel stuck on reality that nevertheless transcends it. You will recognize places and characters. You will recognize the mugginess of the climate. But Courtemanche’s fiction transmits the depth of the real better than any objective documentation.” -- Relations
“Those who read this novel -- and I hope they will be numerous -- are in for some astonishing pages on the subject of love and death.” -- David Homel, Books in Canada

“Exceptional.” -- Jean-Paul Dubois, Le Nouvel Observateur
“A captivating first novel...Gil Courtemanche’s fine writing and refined style... weave together a love story full of beauty and tenderness.” -- Voir
“A first novel whose story hits hard, very hard.” -- Le Droit
“A tremendous novel.” -- René Homier-Roy, Radio Canada/C’est bien meilleur le matin

“A few pages are enough for you to be swept away into the terrifying madness of a country.” -- Le Nouvel Observateur
“When your first novel is compared to the works of Albert Camus, André Malrauz and Graham Greene, it’s a pretty good start. The book is set in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, just before the genocide of the Tutsis at the hands of the Hutu-led government. There is a sense of disaster foretold as these men and women, white and black, play out their last days around a hotel swimming pool in a city that will soon become a graveyard. Courtemanche’s novel is guided by a strong moral presence: that of the author. He has an astringent personality, and he puts it to good use in this book...” -- The Gazette

“Journalist Courtemanche follows in Graham Greene’s footsteps to create popular work that distinguishes itself on the literary scene.” -- David Homel, Enycyclopedia Brittanica

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a blunt, vividly visual account of a human cataclysm that has left a scar on the psyche of us all. At the same time it is a testament to love, its durabilility and frailty in the face of annihilation. Do not expect it to leave you untouched.” -- Jonathan Kaplan, author of The Dressing Station

close this panel

Buy this book at:


About the Author

Gil Courtemanche

Gil Courtemanche was a journalist, essayist and novelist based in Montreal, Quebec. His best-selling first novel, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, was an international sensation; it has been translated into many languages, sold in over twenty countries and made into a film. In 2010, his novel A Good Death was made into a film, The Last Escape. On Friday, August 19, 2011, Courtemanche lost his two-year battle with cancer of the larynx. His work will live on as a testament to his commitment to outing injustices in the world.
Author profile page >

Other titles by Gil Courtemanche

more >

User Activity

more >
X
Contacting facebook
Please wait...