Loads of Learned Lumber

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Boubacar Boris Diop, _Murambi, The Book of Bones_

A NOVEL OF the Rwandan genocide, first published in French; I read the English translation by Fiona McLaughlin, published by the Indiana University Press. The author is Senegalese.

The novel has four sections. The first is set in the few days just before the massacres begin, and consists of three chapters, each from the point of view of a different character. The second section makes an unexpected move, jumping ahead to four years after the genocide has ended, introducing us to Cornelius Uvimana, a Rwandan who was out of the country at the time of the massacres and is making his first visit back. Cornelius is a writer and the child of a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father, so he has a lot to sort out. At the end of this section, about midpoint in the novel, he learns that his father, a doctor, played a signally horrible role in the massacre.

The third section takes us back to 1994. The killing is now going on. Again, we have a chapter apiece from the perspectives of several characters, including a French Army officer and Cornelius's father.

The fourth and final section brings us back to 1998 and the conclusion of Cornelius's visit, a trip to Murambi, with its mass burial pits and quicklime-dusted corpses. Cornelius has to face the full horror of what happened to his mother and siblings, of what his father did. He resolves to write about what happened in Rwanda.

To adapt Carolyn Forché's famous term, Murambi seems to be a "novel of witness," an enlistment of the resources of the literary imagination in order to report, to give an account, to keep awareness of this history alive and circulating. Diop -- wisely, I'd say -- is mainly indirect in showing the horrors of the massacres; the novel's violence occurs off-stage, so to speak. He is wise as well in not attempting a comprehensive explanation; he indicates a number of contributing factors, but does not pretend he can say exactly why the genocide happened. The novel seems mainly to want the world to remember that it did happen.

Murambi is a good book written for a good reason -- but, I somewhat reluctantly must confess, to my mind not a great book. I found myself inwardly comparing it to Chiminanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of A Yellow Sun -- similarly about violence between two African peoples in conflict within the same European-drawn borders (the Nigerian civil war, in Adichie's case), similarly ingenious in its departure from simple narrative chronology, similarly about events the author had not seen (Adichie was born after the war's end) -- and the comparison was much to the disadvantage of Murambi.

Adichie's novel is well and truly a novel -- its characters distinct, rounded, and unforgettable, its attention to the sounds, tastes, smells, and sights of quotidian life exact and evocative, its comprehension of humans in the grip of history rich and full. Diop's sympathetic characters, even Cornelius, are pasteboard, his "monster" characters cartoons. After the first chapter, we get little sense of place. The conversations are such as occur only in novels.

One has to be glad we have a novel like Murambi now, certainly, and one has to hope that some future novelist, perhaps now in diapers, will do for Rwanda what Adichie has done for Biafra.

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