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Gilbert Gatore: Le passé devant soi (The Past Ahead)

This is apparently only the second Rwandan novel to deal with the Rwandan genocide and is written by a Rwandan who managed to escape to France. While in Rwanda, he kept a diary but this was lost during the escape and this novel is an attempt to reconstruct it in literary form. It is the first in what is planned to be a series called Figures de la vie impossible which might be translated as Images of the life impossible. It tells the story of two apparently separate people – Niko and Isaro. Though it is obvious that they are both Rwandan, this is not mentioned at any point.

We first meet Niko when he is out in the wild and looking for a place to hide. He scouts out a cave, trying to make sure that it is safe, and settles there. There is a troop of monkeys in the vicinity and they give him a bit of a rough time but, eventually, they learn to live with each other. They are after the bananas, he is after the melons. But someone must have seen him, as a shot rings out. He tries to hide behind a rock but there is another shot. He realises that he has been saved by the leader of the monkey troop, who has put himself between Niko and the shooter and paid for this with his life. An odd ritual between Niko and the monkeys ensues. Niko is haunted by strange dreams but it is at this point that we learn who he is. He was born during a thunderstorm and, because of the thunder, no-one realised that he had been born, his mother having died giving birth to him. He then never made a sound, allegedly because he had been ignored at birth. His father remarried and he is neglected, his stepmother paying minimal attention to him and, then virtually none when she had two daughters of her own. He is not even named, Niko meaning something like Hey, you and the name stuck. His father felt his role in the conception was sufficient. We follow his childhood and growing up. He remains dumb but eventually becomes close to his uncle and follows his uncle’s trade as a potter.

Meanwhile, we have been following the story of Isaro. The two stories are told concurrently, with Niko’s being distinguished by having numbered paragraphs and Isaro’s being told without the numbers. Isaro had been adopted as a child by two French teachers in Rwanda and taken to France, where she grew up in a loving environment, though unaware of her past. Hearing news about her country on the radio changes everything. From being a loving and dutiful daughter, she gradually detaches herself from her adoptive parents as well as from her university work. She begrudges her parents the fact that they had not told her about her past. Her life, as far as she could see, at least from their point of view, started when they adopted her. She finds out about a nameless foundation and applies to them for a grant to carry out a project which seems to be something like a Truth and Reconciliation Report, along the lines of the one in South Africa and other countries. She wants to get the testimony of all participants, victims and perpetrators alike, and prepare a report as part of the healing process. This is partially prompted by the fact that the news item she heard suggested that the normal legal process is going to take many years, as there is such a backlog. There is much discussion with the foundation which is willing to help but concerned. She pre-empts them and flies off to Rwanda, eager to get started.

Niko has taken over his uncle’s pottery (his uncle has become a drunk) but is not doing well, as he puts strange drawings and slogans on the pottery, which his customers don’t like. It is at this point that the genocide starts and Niko is, of course, involved. Meanwhile, Isaro has her own problems with the foundation but does manage to interview some people and, of course, finds out about her past and how her past intertwines with Niko. Gatore tells a very effective story of the atrocities in Rwanda, without mentioning the name of the country, and his approach is definitely original, not just concentrating on the atrocities themselves and the issue of good versus evil.

Publishing history

First published 2008 by Editions Phébus
Published in English by Indiana University Press in 2012
Translated by Marjolijn De Jager