Sex & death

Gil Courtemanche walks past me a couple of times as I’m sitting in the lobby of the Windsor, but I don’t recognise him—there is no author photo in the back of his multi-award-winning novel A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. In the end he sees me chatting with a girl whose T-shirt logo proclaims her links to the Melbourne Writers’ Festival and he approaches. His English is excellent, and with the kind of French-Canadian accent that sounds hip. Gauloises and cognac. This is his first novel but he has been a journalist for many years. We’re both early, but he is flying out to Spain in two hours and needs to get things over with.

What is real and what is fiction in your novel? I ask. Clearly we don’t need to do the ritual conversational dance of what does ‘real’ mean, yada yada. He smiles, a little tiredly. Everyone must ask him that, but each questioner needs an individual answer. He says it’s a fair question and that the Rwandan political background, the sequence of public events, the facts about the killings and cruelties and the way they were carried out are all real. The moment a village or region was liberated from the grip of the Interahamwe, the murderous Hutu militias, the new government would interview the survivors while the memories were fresh.

There is no way to re-create genocide, but I wanted to work through the people I’ve known, trying to imagine how they lived and died, he said. I tell him that some of his details are terrible; I can’t get them out of my mind. They really happened, he says. Those details are not the product of my imagination. What was it about the Belgians, I ask. He looks at me. I try to explain: the book has some instances of Belgians behaving very badly. And they made particularly bad colonists, didn’t they? They caused the enmity between the Hutus and the Tutsis by favouring the latter, didn’t they?

The French were just as bad, he says. The French embassy was evacuated just before the massacres, and they left their Tutsi employees to the machetes of the Interahamwe. You have to understand, he says, that in this very small world, this microcosme, those who worked at that time in Rwanda—he shakes his head. They sent the worst, most inept diplomats there, their worst international ‘experts’ and accountants and supervisors, who would come for three weeks and live in the best hotel. A driver comes in the morning to take them to the air-conditioned office and brings them back in the afternoon. In this disorganised, derelict society, says Courtemanche, a little boss becomes a huge, crude boss, and is devoid of even the faintest perception that when the Rwandans address him as ‘chef’ they are laughing at him.

There is a small silence. The women, I say. The women in Africa are just meat. Why are they treated so horribly? Most African men don’t want to talk about it, he said. Traditional matrimonial law in Rwanda dictates that if a husband dies the wife doesn’t inherit if his family doesn’t want her to. She is often obliged to marry his brother or uncle, and if she refuses, she and her kids are thrown out. So she’ll go to Kigali, but if she finds work in a kitchen or a hotel, the pay is too low to support them, so the only way to survive is by occasional prostitution. It’s one of the ways AIDS is spread, he says.

Courtemanche worked in Rwanda to educate about AIDS, which has spread with lethal efficiency down the ‘AIDS Highway’ from Mombasa to Entebbe, using truckers for vectors as malaria uses mosquitoes. And thereby hangs an irony: many educated Africans believe that AIDS is spread through mosquitoes, and so they figure they may as well enjoy their sex unsafe.

You cannot understand Africa without understanding their attitude to sex; there is an enormous amount of screwing around, he says, adding that African culture separates sex and feelings. Everything is related to poverty, he says, and leans forward a little to say that if the Hutus had been rich and organised like the Germans they would have built gas chambers. And the daughter of poverty is deadly ignorance.

But there is too much ignorance in the rich countries too. Courtemanche’s novel sees the link between sex and death that is so much more obvious in Rwanda. The Canadian journalist who accused him of writing a Mills and Boon for men and objected to his ‘sexualising’ of events has missed the elephant in the living room. His anger at the West’s apathy in 1994 is palpable, and the resonances with the Nazi Holocaust are clear: those who defend the inaction of the UN’s representative in Rwanda by saying that they were under orders not to act have forgotten the lessons of Nuremberg. He is fierce about Australia’s treatment of refugees and Aborigines.

And as he leaves he signs my copy of the book with a gracious message. 

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, by Gil Courtemanche, is published by Text
Publishing, 2003. Photo: Darren James.

Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer.




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