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Gaël Faye: Petit pays (Small Country)

Gaël Faye was born in Burundi of a French father and Rwandan mother. He moved to France in 1995, after the outbreak of the Rwandan genocide. This novel is an autobiographical tale of his life. In this novel he is called Gabriel (often using the shortened form Gaby, as it is less Western).

His father is a Frenchman, who has come to Burundi and stayed there, as he can make a good living. His mother, like many other Rwandans, had fled Rwanda in 1963, soon after the violence that arose following independence from Belgium. We learn immediately what is the problem in Rwanda, at least according to Gabriel’s father. There are three major ethnic groups in Rwanda (and in Burundi): the Twa (the pygmies), the Tutsi and the Hutu. Are the Tutsi and Hutu fighting one another because they do not have the same territory, asks Gabriel. No, his father, replies, they have the same country. Because they do not have the same language? No, they have the same language. Because they do have the same god? No, they have the same god.Then why are they fighting? Because they do not have the same nose, is the response. The conversation ends but subsequently, he and his younger sister, Ana, examine the noses of all passers-by to determine whether they are Hutu or Tutsi but do not always agree.

The story is told in flashback and, in the present day we learn that, while managing in France, he misses Burundi and still thinks of it as home. He has not really settled in France. He has many casual sexual relationships – the woman always asking him where he is from – but nothing permanent. The fact that his parents separated has also had a profound effect on him.

Back to his childhood, we follow the separation of his parents. All had seemingly been going well. They had gone up to what was then Zaïre to visit an old friend of Michel (Gabriel’s father), Jacques. Jacques had lived there for some time and, like Michel, was doing fairly well. However, Michel and Jacques started complaining about Africa and Africans – the food and the people in particular. Yvonne, Gabriel’s mother, took offence and continued to remain angry and bitter. Eventually, she moved out. The two children remained with their father.

The book describes various events in their childhood. Gabriel’s bike is stolen and, after great effort, they eventually track it down but the whole business is messy. He forms a gang with four other boys, three of whom are, like him, of mixed race. They more or less do the same things other gangs of boys do elsewhere in the world – steal fruit, go fishing, try and avoid the bigger boys. The only difference with other boys may well be the hippopotamuses. He has a French penpal and falls in love with her. However, on the whiole, it is a fairly idyllic childhood.

However, in 1994, war has broken out in Rwanda again. First Yvonne’s older brother goes and is soon killed. Then her younger brother goes. The boys talk about their responsibility and whether they should go as well. Gabriel is not keen, feeling no kinship with Rwanda, a country he has never visited. In short, he says that he is not Rwandan and it is not his issue.

In June 1993 Melchior Ndadaye becomes the first democratically elected president of Burundi. Three months later he was overthrown. Ana and Gabriel are at home on their own – their father is out, quite probably with a girlfriend – when they hear shots. While they are not immediately affected, they hear of wholesale massacres in other parts of the country. Meanwhile, things are getting worse,much worse, in Rwanda. Yvonne goes to Rwanda to try and find her relatives and is lucky to get out with her life. Things deteriorate in Bujumbura, as gangs take over and law and order breaks down. More than once they are threatened. They even witness a man being murdered and no-one else reacts. We get many graphic descriptions of the chaos and the massacres. The gang, instead of stealing mangos, now want to buy a Kalashnikov. And, while it looked like Yvonne and Michel might get back together, the war separates them even further.

Gabriel’s only retreat in this chaos is reading. A neighbour, an elderly Greek lady, has a huge collection of books and she lends them to Gabriel and they then talk about them, starting with a book that seems to be The Old Man and the Sea. When Gabriel and his family finally leave for France, she gives him a poem by Jacques Roumain:

Si l’on est d’un pays, si l’on y est né, comme qui dirait : natif-natal, eh bien, on l’a dans les yeux, la peau, les mains, avec la chevelure de ses arbres, la chair de sa terre, les os de ses pierres, le sang de ses rivières, son ciel, sa saveur, ses hommes et ses femmes… [If you are from a country, if you are born there, native-born as it is called, well, you have it in your eyes, your skin, your hands, with the hair of its trees, the flesh of its earth, the bones of its stones, the blood of its rivers, its sky, its taste, its men and its women… ]

This is what Gabriel has with Burundi. He comes back, on a flimsy excuse, but even when he is France, he has Burundi inside him and he always will. It is a fine story and one that won two major French book prizes.

Publishing history

First published 2016 by Grasset
First English translation 2018 by Hogarth