Sunday, July 29, 2018

Small Country

Title:  Small Country
Author:  Gaël Faye
Publication Information:  Hogarth. 2018. 192 pages.
ISBN:  1524759872 / 978-1524759872

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I don't really know how this story began."

Favorite Quote:  "Not one of them fails to ask me the same loaded question ... 'So, where are you from?' A question as mundane as it is predictable. It feels like an obligatory rite-of-passage, before the relationship can develop any further. My skin - the colour of caramel - must explain itself by offering up its pedigree. 'I'm a human being' My answer rankles with them. Not that I'm trying to be provocative. Any more than I want to appear pedantic or philosophical. But when I was just knee-high to a locust, I had already made up my mind never to define myself again."

The "small country" referenced in the title is Burundi in the 1990s. Burundi is a small land-locked nation in Africa, bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The city of Bujumbura is the capital. The country's three main ethnic groups are the Twa, the Hutu, and the Tutsi.  Struggle between the ethnic groups have unfortunately long been part of the region's history. In 1993, an election lead to an assassination which in turn led to genocide. The result was years of violence and an estimated 300,000 victims. This is the historical context of this book.

Interestingly, this book is a novel but reads very much like a memoir. To a great extent, the story line seems to parallel Gaël Faye life. Gaël Faye is a rapper, singer, and writer. He was born in 1982 in Bujumbura, Burundi. His mother was Rwandan, and his father was French. In 1995, after the outbreak of civil war, he fled to France where he spent the remainder of childhood.

The book begins with the main character Gabriel as a young man in France reflecting on his childhood. It then proceeds to ten year old Gabriel, the son of a Rwandan mother and a French father, growing up in Bujumbura. The book describes an idyllic childhood that descends into the atrocities of war up to the necessity to flee. The story then cycles back to the older, although still young, man.

The parallels are clearly there. This may not be completely the author's own life, but is heavily based in that reality. A statement is clearly made. "I'm neither Hutu nor Tutsi ... Those are not my stories. You're my friends because I love you, not because you're from this or that ethnic group. I don't want anything to do with all that!"

This story, to some extent, is like reading two different books. Most of the book sets up Gabriel's childhood; the story reads like a coming of age story of a young boy. There are tales of friendships, of playing in the street, grabbing fruit off of trees, riding bikes, and even of childhood arguments. Then arrives the brutal story of war, genocide, and its innocent victims. Even for such a short book, the first component becomes a very long lead up to what felt like the real story. Hints are dropped and I know what is coming, but the wait seems long.

The second part is the story I was expecting from the book, but the depiction seems a little rushed. Perhaps, however, that is the story of itself. It goes from leisurely childhood days to a frantic fear and a struggle for survival. Innocence is lost, and all the realities of the world come rushing in. The ending surprised me, and I am left with the question if that too parallels Gaël Faye's own life.

Sadly, the need exists for another book that yet again documents the cruelty of mankind against itself. I still hope that one day it will not. Meanwhile, we as readers count on writers and journalists to give voice to the history all around us.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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