Rémy Ngamije: The Eternal Audience of One
Our hero/narrator is Séraphin Turihamwe. Like the author he is a refugee from Rwanda, living in Namibia. He lives with his family – father Guillome, mother Thérèse and brother Yves and Eric. They live in Windhoek where Guillome has a good but demanding job. The boys are all studying.
Séraphin is not very flattering about Windhoek. He describes it as the most boring town on Earth and The best thing to do in the city is arrive and leave. He is critical of the weather – Windhoek has three temperatures: hot, mosquito, and fucking cold. In short he wants to get out and does so by studying law in Cape Town. He had wanted to be a writer but an English degree was a precursor only to law school and not to the fabled life of the travelling intellectual and writer. And yes, he also wants to travel.
At the beginning of the novel, he is back in Windhoek for Christmas. He had hoped to get a summer job in South Africa but preference is given to South African nationals so he is unable to get a job. Back home, it is business as usual. Thérèse is tough but the boys resist. She and Guillome cannot understand why children are not obedient as their generation was back in Rwanda. ‘Twas ever thus. In other words, this family is not unlike families all over the world. Séraphin’s other misdeed is to sneak his girlfriend in when the other family members are out. Indeed, one of the key traumatic evens of his life is when his mother catches him and the young lady – Jasmyn – in flagrante delicto. As this is his first time, it has an effect on hm and Jasmyn more than on the mother.
Much of the novel is the various events in his life. We follow the exodus from Rwanda, when Séraphin is still quite young and, for him and his brothers, Rwanda is something distant and remote, though he constantly suffers from being considered a refugee, either abuse or lack of access to facilities or privileges. In fact, it is his father who suffers more as his job is quite a good job but he is always looked down on. Séraphin, of course, fights back. We see this in his early days when they are still in Kenya and he starts school and initially does badly but is determined to to succeed. Racism, however, is still there. That is how it is in Africa. If you are German or British or French or Portuguese, you are an expat. Blacks are foreigners, or refugees, or aliens or, as a guard tells him, you are not white, you are refugee. If you are white, then you are not refugee.
He initially studies English at university but he learns that, as mentioned above, English leads to nothing so he must study law so he manages to get a scholarship to Remms University in Cape Town. it does not start well, as he gets into two altercations the first day and is thrown out of his residence because of it.
He will gradually get a set of friends and an active sex life and we follow both of these in some detail. The friends are all male plus a lesbian woman. They do add a couple of white women friends, whom they call BWGs (Benevolent White Girls) who show them how to work the system as far as studying law is concerned.
Like many (most?) young men, our hero has two concerns – sex and the idea that it is him against the world. the world’s a stage . . .” upon which we perform for the eternal audience of one he tells us. Parents, authority, those who deride his refugee status, other ethnic groups – white in particular, of course, – who look down on him, all become the enemy. He really wants to get away. His mind grew fat on images and stories of places far away, and his soul longed to amble in the side ways and byways of places he had only read about in literature or seen on television.
Much of the latter part of the novel is his time at law school in Cape Town where he seems to spend most of his time hanging out with his group of friends, having sex with various women and studying. Disappointingly, what we do not get is any evidence of any development in his character. This is not a Bildungsroman. He is annoyingly immature at the beginning and annoyingly immature at the end. He picks stupid fights at the beginning and he picks stupid fights at the end, all part of his pride and what he considers his sense of justice and what is right. Apart from the vague idea of being a travelling intellectual and writer, he has no idea what he wants to do in life at the beginning and no idea at the end. He mentions some vague idea of human rights but has shown no interest in it during the book and comments Human rights don’t put food on the table. Just more people in the ground.
Like many of his generation, he has a generally cynical view of life. When looking at a law case, for example he comments Fuck this case and its general irrelevance. All you need to know is that white people win. While probably accurate, the view is not exactly that of a mature lawyer-to-be. When discussing possible marriage partners, a friend says The white women, they are good for the papers and the black women are good for the children. With Coloured women you are only renting her for a while. Always she will go back to her people. He does not disagree.
The blurb to this book compares it to Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon. I have read several books by both and the comparison is laughingly wide of the mark. Smith and Chabon are far superior writers. While this is not a bad book, as it is interesting to read about the fate of a person moved from the horrors of Rwanda as a child and then growing up in Namibia as a refugee, with all that involved, and then trying to get an education in South Africa where he is considered more or less a second-class citizen. Nevertheless, the book needs a good editor because there is a lot of casual chit-chat – both in person and in online chat – which could be cut, too much of our hero trying to be clever for the sake of it and lack of any development in any of the main characters.
First published in 2019 by Blackbird Books