Sunday, September 29, 2019

Burundi: Small Country, by Gaël Faye

Although this book is described as a novel, it seems to have a lot in common with the life of the author. The protagonist, Gabriel (a name suspiciously similar to Gaël), was born in Burundi to a French father and a Rwandan mother. Gabriel is ten at the outset of the book in 1992, and leads a comfortable life in an ex-pat neighbourhood. That is soon to change as civil unrest breaks out both in Burundi and in neighbouring Rwanda, where an unthinkable genocide creates havoc in the lives of Gaby's Rwandan grandmother, aunt and cousins.

Burundi is supposedly a democracy but one in which it is dangerous to be elected president if the army are opposed. To a ten-year-old, the difference between Hutu and Tutsi, the two tribes between which violence breaks out, is hard to understand. The book opens with Gabriel's father explaining: they have the same country, the same language, and the same God. So why are they at war? "Because they don't have the same nose".

Seen through the perspective of a ten year old, the book recounts shocking atrocities. Nevertheless the prose is lyrical throughout, with a startling beauty to it. Eventually like the author, Gabriel and his small sister Ana are evacuated to France, although without their parents. Many years later Gabriel returns, and is reunited with his mother.

The author however moved to France with his family, including his mother, in 1995, and according to the blurb on the book, still lives in Paris. However in this article, he describes moving to Kigali in Rwanda with his part Rwandan wife. Small Country is his first novel. It won the Prix Goncourt des Lyceens in 2016. Small Country is translated from French by Sarah Ardizzone and published by Hogarth (part of the Penguin Random House group) in 2018.

No comments: