African Library: The Oldest Orphan by Tierno Monénembo

Tierno Monénembo: The Oldest Orphan (2004)*

Originally published in 2000 under the title L’Aîné des orphelins and translated into English by Monique Fleury, this short novel was written and published as one part of Fest’Africa’s Rwanda: écrire par devoir de mémoire [Writing as a duty of memorialisation (to the Rwandan genocide of 1994)] that invited ten Francophone African authors to participate in this project, taking all of them to Rwanda in 1998 to experience local conditions and to speak to Rwandan people. The idea was to enable African writers whom the organisers thought had not been heard sufficiently on the subject of the 1994 events to respond creatively and inspiringly to that terrible time.

Several very highly rated novels resulted from this partly communal endeavour, proving cynics wrong. The interesting thing about the text profiled in the present entry is that it has only a tiny section very late in the novel where the genocidal experience is described; the novel needs to be reread to pick up the subtle hints to a past about which the title protagonist keeps silent for most of the text.

A native of Guinea, Monénembo (“real” name Thierno Saïdou Diallo) fled his own country when the regime of Sekou Touré became viciously oppressive, escaping by walking miles through the bush. At present he resides in France. He earned a doctorate in biochemistry in Lyon, but is now a full-time writer. Monénembo’s native language is Fulani. One point that needs to be made about the English translation is that the language errors of the main character (a boy named Faustin) work punningly; the Rwandan euphemism commonly used to refer to the ’94 genocide is “les événements” (ie “the events”), but Faustin uses the term “les avènements” (rendered in the English text as “the advents”), which is in some way a more appropriate way to name the dire, portentous “arrival” of genocide. The clever title of the novel (the meaning of which becomes clear only near the end of the narrative) was suggested to the author by a Rwandan friend, he says.

A Rwandan proverb, “The pain of others is bearable”, is the first epigraph of the novel and is entirely suitable to the sardonic voice of the main protagonist, young as he is. We meet him at the age of 15, in jail in Kigali (the Rwandan capital) on the eve of his execution. The narrative recalls the brief life of this youngster, who tells his own story. The interesting thing is that certain vital parts of this autobiography remain all but hidden even to Faustin himself, it seems, until close to the end of the novel (and, of course, his life). He speaks as the cynical street child he has been for a number of years until his imprisonment, disclosing in a way that is nevertheless also often naive, who those are that he sees himself as having exploited and fooled. Monénembo’s particular achievement with this text is perhaps the way he keeps his reader aware that Faustin remains just a boy and that the world in general and the society in which he finds himself are far, far harsher and more corrupt than even he believes them to be, despite the few exceptions of which he is aware.

A passage on the second page of the text can be used to introduce his tone and perspective:

My name is Faustin, Faustin Nsenghimana. I’m fifteen years old. I’m in a cell in Kigali central prison. I’m waiting to be executed. I was living with my parents in the village of Nyamata when the advents began. I can’t keep from thinking back on those days. And each time I do, I tell myself I had just turned ten for nothing. (6)

What we learn concerning the boy’s imprisonment is that the cell in which he is held is “where the dealers, the pimps, the parricides and the génocidaires [the word coined to refer to those who enacted the genocide], whose ages range from seven to seventeen, have been crammed” (10). The youngster muses sarcastically about the ridiculously inappropriate name, Juniors’ Club, that this section of the prison has been given; as if it is some innocuous centre for recreation for teens. Faustin has been incarcerated for three years, which is, he says, “the average life span here”; for if some foul disease does not do for one, the violent terrorism of the self-proclaimed cell leader will – in his case, of course, it is the death sentence that will end his residence of cell 14. One of his fellow inmates screams terribly, intermittently, driven insane by the conditions, but almost all his fellow prisoners experience extreme mood swings.

Faustin initially earned a measure of respect in the cell by refusing to comply with the required “initiation” of being the one who takes not only his own turn, but has to empty the cell’s slop pail for a whole week. He also refused to become the cell tyrant’s sex slave, unlike poor “young Misago, who washes [Ayirwanda’s] rags, pinches drugs for him in the adult halls, and takes care of his prick eaten away by fungus and crabs” (14). The death penalty in the time between Faustin’s sentencing and execution catapults him to a position higher than the bully Ayirwanda’s. What had eventually helped to protect him in the life-threatening environment of the cell was that he was tracked down by the Ugandan-born Rwandan Claudine Karemera, who had first befriended him when he was a street boy washing and guarding cars near the office where she works. Even though ultimately Faustin does not heed either’s sage teaching and advice (to his own cost, eventually), he makes an interesting connection between Claudine’s attempts to aid and save him and those of the elderly traditional doctor from his village whom he names “Funga the witch doctor”:

Now that nothing is left, neither the house where I was born nor the church tower [ie neither parental nor religious authority and protection has survived], Funga’s voice is all I have. I mustn’t doubt him anymore; I’m protected by his charms. How else can I explain Claudine coming all the way here to look for me? (14)

Even so, Faustin explains that he initially suspected and even resented her kindness towards him. Claudine’s parents had fled from the earlier Rwandan bloodbath (the slaughter of Tutsis) in 1959; that is why she grew up in Uganda and speaks Kinyarwanda with a slight English accent. Having lived in another country when the genocide happened, Claudine would in Faustin’s presence ask what he calls the “terrible and inevitable question”: “Why have we come to this?” (16). Later, during one of her jail visits to Faustin, Claudine brings him the sad news that his friend and fellow street child Sembé has died in hospital, of Aids (at 14!). Guiltily, Faustin recalls that since poor Sembé was so ugly that no woman or girl would sleep with him, he had thought to help the boy by suggesting he go to “Mukazamo the Madwoman” (18) – a woman so lost to sanity that every kind of passing man took advantage of her. These harsh and terrible aspects of street life are “par for the course” to Faustin, but evidently not to the idealistic Claudine.

To indicate the difference between the street-hardened, violence-scarred boy and Claudine, I quote the way he hears and reports her conduct:

While she continued to ramble, I tried to imagine [Sembé’s] corpse but couldn’t. She had reached the touching verse about HIV positive kids, then the part about women victims of rape and, one thing leading to another, to Christ’s martyrdom, to the unjust treatment of the infirm, and to the doleful loneliness of the gorillas on mount Karisimbi. Phew! […] She let out a long sigh and stood up. […] “There’ll never be enough magistrates on earth to judge all these people! I can’t do anything until your file has reached the judge’s office. But I spoke with the warden, and he promised to watch over you. […] I’ll be back […].” (18–9)

At this point Faustin begins to tell his tale more chronologically, although, tellingly, he begins from the point in the past when he had fled from the village where he had lived with his family; ie when he, then a boy of ten, had had to survive on his own – omitting how it came about that so young a child was not with his parents at this time. He explains his vague hope of finding his parents at the Byumba caves, but undermines the likely fulfilment of that consolatory thought by saying, on the one hand, that he actually did not see the need to undertake such a journey and, on the other hand, that he lacked the strength to continue travelling; he was also aware that, in any case, everyone seemed to be fleeing their homes and even the country. He sees many processions of refugees from his hiding place as they move along; eerily, he perceives that they seem “gripped by [an] icy silence […] walking [slowly] as if they were returning from a difficult day of labor – or as if they were on their way to God’s venerable court for that last judgment” (20). Dreamily, the boy imagines the very hills, pebbles and trees shifting their ground. He had under a tree encountered Funga the “witch doctor”; the latter had stuffed a handful of groundnuts in his pocket that helped him survive over the next few days. Faustin does not at this stage report what the old man had said to him.

One day, Faustin says, his confusion cleared up when a boy slightly taller than himself, in the uniform of the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi rebel army that had taken over post-genocide), stood pointing a gun at him, commanding him to move on under his guard and addressing him as [a] “génocidaire” (20). As a captor the strange boy is not too unkind, but warns Faustin not to try to escape until he has handed him over to his superior officer; were he to fall into the hands of the FAR [comprising Hutu Rwandans] Faustin would be in real trouble, the young soldier says, since he looks like a Tutsi. When they reach the captain and Faustin‘s story begins to pour out uncontrollably, it evidently convinces the RPF soldiers that Faustin is no génocidaire; indeed, he seems from then on to get favourable treatment. He also delights in being again able to play and fight with other boys his age who are also being held at the camp and (after initial combat) makes friends with a boy his age who calls himself Musinkôro. Faustin even says about this period that with those in the camp he had “found a new family” (26). But after a short while they are informed that Kigali has fallen to the RPF and they are immediately ordered to the city. The kind captain gives Faustin equipment for survival, but he trades them for money, keeping only the cap to hide the scars on his head.

The city is slowly normalising; “the rattle of the dying and the roar of the tanks gave way to the voices of the women selling papayas and passionfruit” (27). In his usual brutally forthright manner Faustin also describes how “the piss of the drunkards and the whores replaced the coagulated blood and the sticky brain matter of the dead”.

Months go by; he is unable to count them in this strange interval of time. Initially, Faustin says, he did “what everyone else was doing”: “help[ing] the soldiers load up machetes and corpses” and “direct[ing] ambulances toward the wounded who still had a small chance” in the war-torn aftermath (27). He had an easy time finding food, he says, because in an abandoned city an incredible number of useful things and foodstuffs can be found where fleeing people had left them behind. Once the civilians return to the city, he has to start working at odd jobs to earn a pittance in order to buy food and other basics.

Some time later, an arm circles his waist from behind and snatches the plate of food he was eating from. A mocking but familiar voice addresses him – it belongs to Musinkôro, his friend from the military camp. Overjoyed to have met up again, the friends exuberantly (and drunkenly) celebrate their chance reunion with a whole night’s feasting and singing. Only the next morning does Musinkôro remember to take Faustin with him to “HQ”, where he heads a gang of street children who share their daily spoils from begging and stealing under his command. He had found the empty, new but incompletely built place by chance and since it is hidden from the street it provides a relatively safe refuge for this group of about 20 children, some of whom are still very young (of course, orphans and abandoned children abound in Rwanda at this time). Within the gang, different children are assigned to different beats; Faustin’s is near the Caritas bookshop, where he is on duty daily as a car guard and washer. His “assistant”, Canisius, gets him into trouble one day by snatching a car radio; Faustin is given the blame by the car owner, who is livid and violent upon discovering the theft. This is where Claudine comes into Faustin’s life for the first time. Since her car is parked nearby she witnesses the incident and intervenes to protect the boy from the furious car owner. Although Faustin lies about having parents and a home in another part of the city, Claudine offers him the regular job of watching and cleaning her car. Since she is a lovely woman, Faustin imagines that he can have a romantic relationship with her. Mistaking Claudine’s kindness for a reciprocated attraction that he half knows to be a delusion, he dreams of sleeping with her. When in due course she discovers that Faustin is a street child, she is angry, but forgives him; she alerts a friend of hers, Una Flannery O’Flaherty, an Irishwoman who works for an NGO called Human Rights Watch, to this group of children’s lifestyle and location. Unable to pronounce the new woman’s name in their own language, the children call her Miss Human Rights, or refer to her comically as “the Hirishwoman” (37).

Not long after, Claudine invites Faustin to a coffee one evening after her working day. She informs him that Una had come to Rwanda to open a Catholic orphanage, school and clinic, and that she has agreed to Claudine’s suggestion to enrol Faustin in this establishment, known as the City of Blue Angels and located outside the city. Reluctantly, he accepts their plans; Claudine has told him that the other HQ children will also go there in due course, when there is room for them.

The two things he dislikes about this establishment are the strict discipline maintained there and the strange and terrible, incessant weeping that emanates from another part of the institution.

One day Una and the Director of the place call Faustin to a meeting, not to rebuke him for misbehaviour (as he assumes initially), but to tell him that they have reason to think that the three children who utter the awful screams are from his region, perhaps his village. They ask him whether it would scare him to go and see and to try and talk to them (since no one else can communicate with them). Even though he is apprehensive, Faustin agrees to do so. At the sight of these children he passes out into a coma-like dead faint, however, remaining very ill for a number of days, suffering from fever and convulsions. He cannot explain it to the adults until he has first sorted it out in his mind. As soon as he seems to have to recovered, Una and the Director interrogate him, certain now that he had recognised the traumatised children. Furious at the pressure they are placing him under, Faustin attacks the Director and breaks his glasses – also hurling a metal chair with medication next to his bed across the room before screaming out, so loudly that he “could be heard a half-day’s march away: ‘One of them is named Esther, the other Donatienne! The little boy, that’s Ambroise! They’re my brother and sisters. My brother and sisters, you idiots’” (42). Now we understand the title of the text.

The pain of reimagining his home village life and family life along with other even more deeply repressed memories is so strong that it is many days before Faustin is able to face going back to his three siblings. They are in a dire state; lying passively on the floor amid excrement, all three so emaciated that they seem not so much to have lost weight as to have shrunk, says Faustin. As soon as he steps into the room, the screams resume, and stop when he backs out. The children seem not to have lived the years since he last saw them and looked after them while his father was away working in the mines in Zaire and his mother was toiling in the fields, when he was nine and Esther seven, Donatienne four and Ambroise two years old. Cleverly, Faustin begins to sing the lullaby his mother used to sing to them, and while his sisters turn away their bloodshot eyes and continue screaming, little Ambroise responds, and when Faustin opens his arms wide as their mother used to do when she came home, the little boy rushes into them and allows Faustin to cuddle and later to kiss him. “He curled up in a ball and began to sob […] I walked around rocking him, trying my best to imitate Mother’s voice and gestures” (43), Faustin says of these touching and terrible moments. The little boy falls asleep and then the girls, too, grow calmer and quieter. While Faustin prays aloud to “all the powers [he can] think of: Imana [the god worshipped alike by the Hutus, Tutsis and Twa in Rwanda] and the Holy Spirit, the rock of Kagera and old Funga’s charms”, the sisters start “yawning and rubbing their eyes as if they had just come out of a gentle sleep” (44); they also look at his face now as if they are beginning to recognise in this big boy the much younger brother they had known.

Faustin remembers that on the morning “at the church when Corporal Nyumurowo grabbed my kite” (45) (a reference that we understand only at a later point in Faustin’s narrative) the girls and his small brother were not with him and his parents, since they had been taken to the convent of the Brazilian nuns by the family’s friend and part-time employer, the Mother Superior, ostensibly to help her shell peas. Later we grasp that she had understood the looming danger of the time, for all her parade of bravado. Faustin remembers that his mother told him how in 1972 she too had been saved by the church from ethnic violence. As he rejoices in being miraculously reunited with his siblings, Faustin dreams endearingly of finding his parents too, and of a future when they will resume living in the village and revive their old social, communal life; of his sisters marrying and himself celebrating in style at their weddings. His sisters and brother gradually rejoin the play and other activities of the children at the orphanage, where the plentiful food soon fills them out again and they slowly regain their trust in other human beings.

As a child who has been through so much and who has lived independently, by his wits, for so long, Faustin is chafed by the rigid discipline by means of which Una the “Hirishwoman” keeps order at the City of Blue Angels. Things come to a head for him as he sits on a swing under the stars one night, dreaming, when she comes to him demanding that he come to bed because “It’s time” (47). Since he now has his smaller but reunited family with him, he steals half a dozen chickens and stows away with his siblings in a truck, secretly jumping off it and returning with his sisters and brother in tow to HQ, the children’s “shelter” in the city. Musinkôro is overjoyed to see him and very pleased at the six chickens because, he says, “things aren’t as before”; in other words, the street children’s scavenging has become much more difficult. Musinkôro is also cynical about Faustin’s now having “three [extra] mouths to feed” (48).

Feeding his siblings is not Faustin’s main worry, however; what seriously troubles him is that, when they go into the city centre to beg and steal, his two sisters are getting ogled by male passers-by of all kinds and ethnicities, their femininity now suddenly evident also to these men, though he had hardly noticed it before. Even though Faustin is not averse to having sex with the girls who live at HQ – or any other available attractive woman – he becomes very protective, not to say possessive, of his sisters, and so terrified of male sexual predators that he gets himself a gun.

Intensifying Faustin’s fear is the recent incident of a Belgian paedophile who was exposed and arrested by the policeman relative of a cunning but under-age street child and prostitute, but who escaped imprisonment and punishment (by lashing) in Rwanda, since the Belgian government intervened to protect him. But now, when Faustin is in the street near the Caritas Bookstore with his sisters, he sees danger to them everywhere:

Lewd faces appeared behind picture windows, motorcycles tooted, cars abruptly put on the brakes when they got near us. Obviously I must have been transformed into a troll or a clown! In this type of situation you don’t understand right away. […] These fevered looks directed at [his sisters’] bodies reminded me of a swarming of caterpillars on a newborn’s back. That was the day I decided to have a gun too. (51)

When Claudine later on tracks Faustin down to the prison, she reproaches him for having left the protection of the City of Blue Angels. By the time of her second visit she is also less sanguine of ensuring his release. She also has no news concerning his siblings. Faustin muses that even if he had not holed up where the police found him and had instead tried to escape to a neighbouring country, villagers would probably have handed him over to the authorities. “If one must die, better to do it like the old elephants, in a familiar place and without putting out too much effort,” (56) young Faustin concludes; here, he at least has Claudine visiting regularly and alleviating some of the worst deprivations of imprisonment.

He also narrates, now, how he met the decadent English trauma TV journalist and filmmaker Rodney. His first assignment from the Englishman is for Faustin to take him to a “whorehouse”; this done, Rodney suggests that he can find Faustin further employment as a countryside and genocide sites guide to foreign film crews. Faustin jumps at the chance, for this way he could earn what by his own standards is “big money”. He places his siblings in Musinkôro’s care for the period of his absence from the capital (unable to say exactly how long he’ll be away), and also gives him enough money to do so: “‘Musinkôro,’ I said to my old friend, ‘watch over Esther, Donatienne, and Ambroise’” (61).  

Faustin joins Rodney the following morning, and although he has never been there, he bluffs that he can direct Rodney to a village in the north where the BBC film crew they are joining will be working. When they see the others, Faustin sees further opportunities in the naive crew members’ questions and pretends to be a native of the village who had witnessed his parents being killed here (after his mother was raped) by the Interahamwe (the genocidal Hutu militias). Now he is no longer merely a guide; he becomes a star, a witness to atrocity, and as his role becomes known, other crews (Swiss television, CNN, the Norwegians, Australians, etc) all want to film him as he minutely details the scars on his skull. Rodney remains his mentor and ally in fleecing the foreigners, since he also gets opportunities for work and pay in this way. Of course Monénembo is partly mocking the expatriate, easily fooled journalists, but is partly also exposing how eager these Europeans, Americans and other “Westerners” are to come to Rwanda now that the genocide is over, whereas they refused to heed the warnings and appeals for protection directed at them before the 1994 horrors, when locals, and particularly a Rwandan-based Italian woman, Tonia Locatelli (whom Monénembo places squarely within Faustin’s narrative as his family’s friend and neighbour), are known to have begged, repeatedly and desperately, for the coming slaughter to be prevented by foreign intervention.

The entire trip to the different sites with different crews ends up taking a month-and-a-half, not the three weeks (with the BBC) that Rodney had originally envisaged.

On the eve of their return to Kigali, Faustin desires to savour the sounds, sights and smells of the countryside and to reminisce about his earlier life with his parents:

The melodious sound of a flute could be heard in the distance. Calves lowed softly as they brushed against the shrubs nearby. That reminded me of the nights when I was a boy. [He is, of course, still only 15!] All that was missing was the husky voice of my father (soaked with alcohol as was often the case) grappling with wizard-kings and the valiant warriors of yester-year and, of course, the tireless breathing of Mama struggling with her pots and pans between the hut and the well. (67)

Faustin takes his gun out of his pocket and forgets it under the tree where he slept when they leave, in a rush and late, the next morning. But when he discovers this loss, Rodney insists on turning their vehicle back so that he can go and get it. They also have a flat tyre on the way back, so that it is late at night by the time they reach the city. Leaving Rodney brawling and causing mayhem (as usual) in a bar, Faustin returns to HQ on foot and, not wishing to disturb the sleeping children, creeps in quietly only to discover, shockingly, that Musinkôro is lying sprawled on top of Esther, Faustin’s sister, naked on a straw mattress. “I aimed at the hoodlum’s head and fired till I ran out of bullets” (69), is all that Faustin says about what happene next.

Faustin flees immediately and goes to hole up near to the City of Blue Angels, which is now in a state of crumbling since Una left for India and the government took over the facility. A friend from HQ tracks Faustin down and brings him supplies to survive on, but after many weeks – inevitably – he is tracked down, arrested and jailed for the murder of Musinkôro. Claudine employs a lawyer to try to get Faustin free or sentenced only lightly, but the youngster instinctively detests and distrusts the French lawyer with his dandy dress sense, fastidious and “superior” manner and innate emotional frigidity. At the trial things go badly for the cocky youthful accused; among other things he proclaims loudly that he has not an ounce of regret about having killed Musinkôro. He comes across as a hardened criminal and as utterly amoral when he says that, to him, the purpose and pleasure of living consists of “[e]ating a good dish of umushagoro, getting drunk when you please, and screwing the woman you love without the law meddling” (84). This straightforward sincerity from a boy who has been prematurely matured by what he has been through, and his taunts to the trio of hypocritical judges (“You’re not going to tell me that you’ve never gotten a beautiful woman in the sack. Unless …” (84)), cause him to be unhesitatingly sentenced to death.

Tierno Monénembo (photo credit: YouTube)

When he was a boy of seven or eight, Faustin believed that references to earlier massacres (in 1959, 1964 and 1972) were merely legends. “Life seemed good to me, even worthwhile, and very often fantastic,” he relates (72). But later on, “a crazy rumour began to spread,” he says: “[M]achetes had been imported from China and grenades from France” (74). Most villagers reassure themselves with the insistence that the killings never previously crossed the bridge to happen among them, but the Italian woman farmer (an actual person whom Monénembo gives a role in Faustin’s story) Tonia Locatelli, who is convinced that something much worse than ever before is coming, petitions every man in authority she can get to, and then the international community, to warn all of the coming bloodbath and to appeal for protection. She is hacked to pieces on her own doorstep for her pains. The rumours of the coming killings begin to frighten young Faustin; he runs to his father Théoneste and asks him whether he is a Hutu (ie safe from the killers), and Théoneste roundly reassures him that he is. When the boy asks a follow-up question: “So I’m not a Tutsi?” his father’s reply is: “Oh yes, you are, since your mother, Axelle, is a Tutsi” (85). Later the same day Funga the healer bursts into their home with the news that the (Hutu) President’s plane had been shot down – the event (rumoured to have been perpetrated by Tutsis) that propelled Rwanda into the 1994 genocide, when 800 000 people – some say nearly a million (mainly Tutsis, but also Hutu moderates and others) – were killed, mostly by machetes, in about 100 days of slaughter and rape.

President Habyarimana’s plane fell on April 6, 1994; by the 12th, Faustin relates, “the first survivors covered with wounds arrived [at their village] to ask for refuge and, in between comas and death rattles, told us what was going on […]: impaling of pregnant women and the carving up of the dying” (87). On the 13th at dawn, Interahamwe militias, drunk, belligerent and intent on looting, enter the village for the first time, but leave without killing anyone. On the night of the 14th, Faustin reports, “the Belgian priests fled toward Burundi” (88). Funga shows up at their hut, terribly worried; he announces that he is throwing away his charms, since he “[doesn’t] believe in the future anymore” (89); he is on the verge of weeping. At last even Théoneste’s usually unbudgable optimism begins to show cracks. The Mother Superior who comes to buy milk from the family still appears to be unshakably confident, but Faustin notes it as odd that she insists on taking all three of his younger siblings with her; and he never saw her again, he says. As for himself, he was delighted at the time, he says, to be able to play uninterruptedly for the whole (windy) morning with the magnificent new kite he had made. As he plays with the kite, another boy warns him that the killers are nearly upon them; they have, this time, crossed the bridge: “We’re all going to die, Faustin, and [still] you’re playing with your kite” (92). Tutsi houses have been marked with red crosses; women trying to save their children “were made to lie down in their own yards and their tendons were slit [to prevent their escape]. Their children’s heads were smashed against the walls” (93).

Terribly anxious, Faustin runs home, but his parents are both alive. Just then, the surviving villagers are ordered by the sous-préfet to gather at the church where, he says, the army will protect them. At the church, Hutu villagers are ordered to leave. A man identified as “Corporal Nyumurow, brandishing his rifle” (95), comes up to Théoneste and insists that, since he is a Hutu, he must leave, but Faustin’s father replies candidly, courageously and movingly: “I’m willing to go home but with my wife and my child. That’s what home is, right?” (95). Not even old Funga, imploring Théoneste to save his own skin, can budge him. Told that because his wife and son are Tutsi they have no rights, he again announces his determination to stay. He knows, he says, that they are all going to be killed, but reproaches the Corporal for the breaking of the promise of protection by the army. Irritated by Faustin having his kite with him as if this is an occasion for play, the Corporal grabs it from the boy, a gesture both silly and revealingly cruel. Faustin says: “We heard someone shout some orders. The stained-glass windows shattered, the icons crumbled to dust, dozens of mangled brains splashed against the ceiling and the walls. They were throwing grenades. My memory of the genocide stops here.” (96)

Faustin tells us that he has no idea in which order, or exactly how or when, his parents died, for when he recovered consciousness he found that both their bodies had been hacked to pieces even though, strangely, his mother’s bleeding breasts were intact. The old woman who rescues him (the third person she found alive, seven days after the massacre) “found the strength to smile at me amid the swarms of flies and the piles of decomposing corpses” (96). He is twice-born, she tells Faustin, since she found him suckling at his mother’s bloody breasts like an infant. “There’s always some life left, even when the devil has passed through!” (96), she concludes, and these are also the final words of Monénembo’s text.

Terrible and moving; implicitly denouncing all those who allowed the genocide to happen, or participated in the killings, or failed to protect the vulnerable, and mocking, at times, about the various inadequacies of the post-genocide arrangements, Monénembo’s brief novel embodying Faustin’s unusual narrative is impressively adequate to its difficult and weighty topic.

 

*I must warn sensitive readers that some parts of the present entry describe horrifying events.

 

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