A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali

Look, for people who’re going to be dead soon, we’re not doing too badly.”

“The novel of the year” is what La Presse called this extraordinary book, a love story that takes place in the days leading up to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. A first work of fiction by one of French Canada’s most admired journalists, Gil Courtemanche, it was first published in Quebec in 2000, spent more than a year on bestseller lists and won the Prix des Libraires, the booksellers’ award for outstanding book of the year. Rights were sold to publishers in over twenty countries in Europe and around the world. This humanist story of an unlikely love affair set against a holocaust has become an internationally acclaimed phenomenon, worthy of comparison with the work of Graham Greene and Albert Camus.

The swimming pool of the Mille-Collines hotel, Kigali, in the early 1990s, draws a regular crowd of assorted aid workers, strutting Rwandan officials, Belgian businessmen, French paratroops and Canadian expats. Among them is Bernard Valcourt, a documentary filmmaker from Quebec, on a mission to set up a television station in the capital. Valcourt, who for two decades has earned his living from wars and famines, lingers around the pool drinking warm beer and watching football; but most of all, watching Gentille, a beautiful young waitress, who is a Hutu but often mistaken for a Tutsi because of her family’s strange history.

The trouble coming stems from a long conflict, instigated in colonial times by Whites who treated Tutsis as superior to Hutus. The Hutu government is now openly encouraging violence against Tutsis. The physical traits of the Tutsis make them easy prey, but they are not the only ones in danger. Too many people are already dying in Rwanda daily: of AIDS, of malaria, and increasingly at roadblocks at the hands of drunken militia, or pulled from their homes. The hotel staff and prostitutes sense trouble and death drawing closer as they continue providing drinks and meals and sex.

The story of this developing catastrophe is revealed through the lives of a handful of Rwandans who befriend Valcourt. They confide in him because he listens, and because his interviews offer them a chance to try to change the way things are by telling the world. Their candour and warmth begin to make his heart glow. He meets people like Méthode, who knows a bloodbath is brewing and would rather die of AIDS in the comfort of a hotel room than by a machete. Threatened, frightened, sick, they don’t want to talk and act like they’re dying. Poor as they are, they want to have some moments of pleasure and celebrate life.

As Kigali life continues in its resourcefulness and persistence, Valcourt is falling in love with Rwanda, and with Gentille, who loves him because he sees her as no-one has seen her before. Even as the worst horrors begin, as friends are raped and murdered, he starts to feel a strange peace in this land of a thousand hills, though he repudiates the outside world for its failure to intervene. Because Gentille is thought to be Tutsi, her life is in danger. Still, no-one can believe that the extremists will go too far, that brothers and sisters will kill brothers and sisters, and that 800,000 civilians will be massacred.

A hard-hitting chronicle of an overlooked chapter of recent history, told with skill and compassion, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is also a celebration of living in the moment, of the integrity of friendship and the courage of everyday heroes. Harrowing, unsettling, challenging, but beautiful and moving, it is a book that cannot leave the reader untouched; as a Quill & Quire reviewer said, it is “full of real people that demand to be remembered.”

Reviews

Courtemanche has written a novel that contains the kind of social criticism that still, almost 10 years after the terrible events, is sharp and pertinent… . The journalist in him has, thankfully, emptied himself, heart and all, into a love story full of real people that demand to be remembered.” – Quill & Quire

“A fresco with humanist accents which could easily find a place next to the works of Albert Camus and Graham Greene.” – La Presse

“Brilliant, anguished and righteous…. There are many unsettling qualities to Gil Courtemanche’s extraordinary novel. But above all, it is his insistence on love, and the right to live one’s life passionately and well, even in the face of AIDS and the genocide, this double helix of devastating African tragedies, that make this book great.” – National Post

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a Heart of Darkness for today…. I don’t know what reader will read this book without feeling in some way morally tested.” Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi

“This novel is not only powerful and beautifully written. Corrosive, denunciatory, Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali also evokes the powerlessness and the complicity that permitted the [Rwandan] massacre to take place.” – Le Devoir

“A voice that evokes humanity in all its depth and breadth, where executioner and victim are brother and sister, where death is a daily occurrence. A voice I implore you to listen to…. Through a felicitous mix of reportage and fiction, Courtemanche has powerfully portrayed a lucid character deeply engaged in a humanist quest…. The many facets of Bernard Valcourt’s eye constitute the richest prism of the book since he so ably expresses the complex malaise that can be the fate of a western white man faced with Rwandan culture in full decline.” – Le Journal de Montreal

“A strong, assured voice…speaking of present day and tragic realities: AIDS and the Rwandan genocide–sicknesses of body and spirit with which men and women live, love, die and triumph…. A novel stuck on reality that nevertheless transcends it. You will recognize places and characters. You will recognize the mugginess of the climate. But Courtemanche’s fiction transmits the depth of the real better than any objective documentation.” – Relations

“Those who read this novel – and I hope they will be numerous – are in for some astonishing pages on the subject of love and death.” – David Homel, Books in Canada

“Exceptional.” – Jean-Paul Dubois, Le Nouvel Observateur

“A captivating first novel…Gil Courtemanche’s fine writing and refined style… weave together a love story full of beauty and tenderness.” – Voir

“A first novel whose story hits hard, very hard.” – Le Droit

“A tremendous novel.” – René Homier-Roy, Radio Canada/C’est bien meilleur le matin

“A few pages are enough for you to be swept away into the terrifying madness of a country.” – Le Nouvel Observateur

“When your first novel is compared to the works of Albert Camus, André Malrauz and Graham Greene, it’s a pretty good start. The book is set in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, just before the genocide of the Tutsis at the hands of the Hutu-led government. There is a sense of disaster foretold as these men and women, white and black, play out their last days around a hotel swimming pool in a city that will soon become a graveyard. Courtemanche’s novel is guided by a strong moral presence: that of the author. He has an astringent personality, and he puts it to good use in this book…” – The Gazette

“Journalist Courtemanche follows in Graham Greene’s footsteps to create popular work that distinguishes itself on the literary scene.” – David Homel, Enycyclopedia Brittanica

A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali is a blunt, vividly visual account of a human cataclysm that has left a scar on the psyche of us all. At the same time it is a testament to love, its durabilility and frailty in the face of annihilation. Do not expect it to leave you untouched.” – Jonathan Kaplan, author of The Dressing Station