Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Variations on a Theme, part 2.

In 1995, a year after the genocide, Philip Gourevitch, a staff writer at The New Yorker went to Rwanda. He wanted to see, he wrote, how the Rwandans were "getting on" in the aftermath.

And getting on, they were. Rebuilding, returning. Not to normalcy, because to return to normalcy would have meant returning to the environment that had made the genocide possible. But even in the wake of the unimaginable, the human mind has the remarkable ability to scab over what it has seen.

Which is how Gourevitch ended up talking to a woman named Lourencie Nyirabeza, a Tutsi who had survived and returned to her home, only to find herself living next to the man who had murdered her family, slashed her with a machete, and left her in a ditch to die.

Gourevitch's writing is simple, spare, almost elegiac. Ranging across Rwanda, he speaks with Hutus and Tutsis alike (although, now I think it's better to say just Rwandans), those who killed, those who survived. He interviews Paul Kagame, Rwanda's President, and Odette Nyaramilimo, Paul Rusesabagina's sister-in-law (the man who managed the Hotel des Milles Collines, the subject of Hotel Rwanda), and Paul himself.

Most heartbreaking are the stories of the survivors struggling to find a place in post-genocide Rwanda. Distrustful of the Tutsis who returned from exile in Burundi and Uganda, feeling ignored in the speed to rebuild and put the past away, the survivors feel that the rush to reconstruct is being used as an excuse to pardon those who participated in the slaughter.

Gourevitch's interviews are the stars here, from the intense and frightening Paul Kagame (now being criticized for political repression as Rwanda readies for another election) to the Tutsi and Hutu survivors.

If Gourvitch's writing is spare, Louise Mushikiwabo's is dense, layered, tumbling with adjectives and twining branches of imagination and history. Rwanda Means the Universe is an imagined historiography of the country, a country with no written history and a false 'history' created by colonialists. Traveling back to the courts of the Rwandan kings, the mwamis, Mushikiwabo tugs the reader along with the first ill-fated European expeditions up Rwanda's rivers into the forbidden land, the establishment of a Belgian 'protectorate' consisting of two malarial white guys, and the eventual calcification of the false concept of 'ethnicity', built on an European mania for racial science and eugenics.

Mushikiwabo's musings on the mindsets of those few Europeans who made it to Rwanda in the heyday of colonialism are often hilarious (finally, an answer to what were they thinking?,) and her blending of imagination and history is masterful. Mushikiwabo brings the reader along in what is essentially a reimaging of Rwanda's national narrative before and after colonialism takes hold, from the crocodile-choked rivers, the fierce reputation that kept slave traders from reaching Rwanda and so preserved it, to the treacherous, cruel and stately court of Rwanda's notorious queen, Kanjogera. Mushikiwabo's pre-colonialism Rwanda is orderly, hierarchical, cruel, and beautiful. Before you realize it, Mushikiwabo is infiltrating the upper echelons of the Hutu government of the early 90s as they plan the decimation of Rwanda's Tutsis.

Meanwhile, Mushikiwabo is in Washington, working as a translator, letting her mind fill the horrific gaps between spotty transatlantic phone calls, when before you know it, the family whose history she is bringing to you is hers, and now it's personal.

If your country is the universe, where else can you go when it doesn't want you anymore?

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