African Library: The Past Ahead

The Past Ahead1
Author: Gilbert Gatore

Gilbert Gatore’s novel appeared originally in 2008 in French under the title Le passé devant soi1; it was translated into English by Marjolijn de Jager and published by Indiana University Press in 2012.

The text has aroused some controversy, especially since claims have been made that Gatore’s own father may have participated in the Rwandan genocide (aspects and consequences of which the text portrays without ever naming the country in which it is set), but also because of the recurrent discomfort readers express with portrayals of what are (paradoxically) imagined to be unimaginable horrors in the history of humankind. The text is daring in tackling exactly that moral and conceptual problem, as is indicated in an epigraph not ascribed to any source: “What better is there to be done when there’s no doubt whatsoever that it’s too late?” Both of the novel’s protagonists (respectively a victim who returns to post-genocide Rwanda and a perpetrator who withdraws to a surreal setting) can be seen as struggling with this unanswerable question and with the unassuageable guilt that is experienced by both perpetrator and survivor of such an event – the point that the cited epigraph so mockingly articulates.

The structure of Gatore’s novel is complex and the intertwined narrative lines (regarding the lives of the two opposed yet parallel lives of the two main protagonists) eschew chronology and often defy expectations of “realism”. This writing strategy is adopted, it seems, in order to find a way of writing about proverbially “unspeakable” events (the 1994 slaughter of nearly a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the Rwandan genocide), but it is also a way of indicating a terrible truth: that perhaps both the survivors on the victims’ side and those on the perpetrators’ side are so indelibly affected by events of this kind that sooner or later it will thwart their attempts to return to what we blithely call “normal” life. The remarkable thing about this text is that despite the profoundly dark and grim ideas and realities with which it concerns itself, its style appears if not detached, then matter-of-fact, almost brisk – mimicking the way “ordinary” life can so quickly drop into awareness of the most terrible possibilities and capacities of human behaviour.

The author himself left Rwanda (his country of birth) in 1994 (the year of the genocide), at the age of about thirteen, in the company of his parents. He studied in France where he now lives. The Past Ahead is his first novel and reportedly the first of an intended trilogy, Figures de la vie impossible (ie something like “Figures [or forms] of an impossible life’). I mention this because, while the aspect of an escape to safety links Gatore to his female protagonist Isaro (who is taken to France by her adoptive parents and brought up there) the suspicions that have been raised concerning his father (mentioned in the opening paragraph above) would link him to his male protagonist, Niko.

At 119 pages, the (translated) novel is brief enough to allow rereading, which also helps a reader to navigate what there is of a (double) plot line in the narrative, as well as to discern the way in which it is structured. At certain points in the text we hear the voice of (and are even directly addressed by) the unnamed, unidentified narrator, who describes Isaro, or even invites us to remain in her company, while Isaro in turn invents and describes Niko and the course of his life.

At first glance Niko seems to be Isaro’s attempt at imagining how Rwandan neighbours and compatriots could become the killers, or rather mass murderers, of their fellow Rwandans, even some of their closest relatives. He is shown to have had a terrible childhood of neglect and abuse, but also to have suffered ostracism because of his congenital muteness. The tide of violence in which he is swept up offers him the opportunity to be socially accepted (at the price of killing his own father! – a fact he barely acknowledges) and even to be the leader of a band of killers.

While much concerning Niko’s story appears a both believable and “realistic” account of the harsh life of a handicapped, motherless, unloved child in a rural peasant community, in retrospect certain details seem to indicate the likely origin of the invented details in Isaro’s presumed attempt to reconnect to a society and its terrible history in a way that can make sense to her. Hence she chooses someone not inherently cruel at all, but in fact exceptionally gentle and imaginative, himself a victim throughout his childhood and young manhood of discrimination against those who are labelled “different” (as the Tutsis would be labelled “cockroaches” or inyenzi – in this novel, “barbarians” – by the Hutus, who had long felt looked down upon as the Tutsis’ social inferiors).

One of the unusual aspects of this text’s presentation is that the Niko parts are given in numbered paragraphs, which sets off Isaro’s writing of the “novel within the novel” from her own story, which appears both self-told and occasionally narrated (or observed) by a third, authorial narrator. Isaro opens her account of Niko’s life (in the first paragraph of the novel) by warning readers that here, meaning and logic are not the same thing; in other words, they need to be able to accept various “illogicalities” in her story and recognise that their function is to convey some (deeper) meaning than mere realism could. Isaro even states (on the novel’s first page) that “she had no idea the narrative would so outstrip her when she began”. I think this means more, here, than the acknowledgement authors sometimes make that their characters assume a life and will of their own. I would take it as an allusion to the fact that Isaro is portrayed as having engaged with the Rwandan genocide as a narrative which includes, but is far greater and more terrible than, her own – a narrative that would eventually devour her, too, despite her initial “escape”, as she senses from the start. For even at the beginning of writing it, she informs the reader that (s)he would be “its only survivor” (1).

First-time readers learn only near the end of the novel that Isaro’s adoptive parents (French citizens who taught in a Rwandan school) had been neighbours, friends and colleagues of her actual parents. The circumstances explaining how she came to be in France had never been told her by her adoptive parents; well-meaning people who had assumed the horror of the genocide and her own parents’ murders and elder sister’s “disappearance” would be an impossible emotional burden. Gatore depicts Isaro as at first obscurely and later explicitly resenting the withholding of her past from her. She had in a sense known only that she was Rwandan by origin. When, one morning, as she was getting ready to go to class at the Parisian university where she studied, she heard a broadcast mentioning the enormous Rwandan prison population figures and that “the number of prisoners was such that, at the speed with which the verdicts were pronounced, it would take two or three centuries to examine each of the cases” (11). This eruption of awareness of her country’s plight seems to address her as an obscure accusation and a summons. She does go to class, but when she hears the comment “It’s terrible, but what can you do …?” (12), albeit uttered in a “compassionate” voice, she instantly turns her back on her former life, as if aware of such a remark’s shameful element of dismissal; its revelation of a lack of real caring; a callousness in which (it seems) she feels implicated and from which she now needs to dissociate herself.

Initially, Isaro only weeps unstoppably and withdraws herself, severing all previous contacts and cruelly breaking off an intimate relationship which in any case seems to have been unsatisfactory. She does emerge to go and see a play with a sensitive friend – a play which happens to address the Rwandan situation. After a long discussion with this friend Isaro seems to begin to realise that a great change is coming over her life – indeed, that she herself must change. A key paragraph states:

Why do the different moments in a given life make sense only after they’ve been lived? Is life a journey backwards, when all is said and done? In contrast to what is often affirmed, perhaps as reassurance, isn’t what is ahead of you the past rather than the future? (28)

At last she grasps that the reason she so inexplicably and suddenly began to resent and withdraw from her devotedly loving and generous adoptive parents was that they had protectively prevented her from suffering her familial and national sorrow and loss; thus that, having been isolated from it, she had not healed from it either: “They deprived her of the possibility of being submerged by sadness and resurfacing from it. (…) Perhaps she blamed them for having diverted her from grieving those whom luck had forgotten” (29).

One of the most interesting points about Gatore’s conception of Isaro is that the reference (in the sentence quoted above) to “those whom luck had forgotten” seemingly allows one to see the character of Niko which Isaro creates and the narrative that she builds around him as an indication that Isaro tries to prevent herself from adopting a crude demonisation of those who had killed her family. (It is not spelled out, but hinted at, that her elder sister who is “taken away” by the butchers of her parents would have been raped and then also killed.)

The all but impossible attempt is made to see the victimisation of everyone affected by or implicated in the genocidal horrors. It is as if the author, through Isaro, is insisting that turning away from fully facing it is wrong, even though confronting “the cruelty and absurdity to which human beings are condemned” (29) is likely to destroy one. With her surrogate parents in mind, Isaro says, “That’s the very problem with angels: their generosity prevents the completion of the cruelty and absurdity to which human beings are condemned” (29, emphasis added). I emphasise the cryptic reference to “completion”; might this mysterious expression confirm the impression that Gatore’s text is written to insist that particular, especially horrific histories, will remain as if ever present – a “past ahead” in that sense?

One especially strange event in the occasionally surreal narrative indicates that, before she returns to Rwanda, Isaro attempts to commit suicide. She swallows handfuls of pills and goes to sit on the sloping surface of a roof outside her flat window so that, on becoming unconscious from the chemicals, she will fall to the ground and be shattered. Isaro thinks of such a suicide as an attempt to “demonstrate her protest in the most obvious way possible” (37). Presumably this is her protest against the “erasure” of awareness or recall of the Rwandan killings. Yet she catches herself out as somehow relishing the grief that her death will inspire and the sorrow which may or may not have prompted it: “What lavishnesss was there in the enjoyment that her death inspired in her?” (38).

Whether the suicide is just a thought, a hallucination, or an attempted event that she survives does not quite matter. We are shown, however, that Isaro’s resolve strengthens to address the Rwandan horror in some meaningful way. She devises a hugely ambitious research/commemoration project and applies (successfully, as it seems at first) for funding for it from a French foundation or funding agency. One may imagine that Gatore wants readers to call to mind a gamut of responses and failures to respond to Rwanda’s genocide and to other atrocities the world has known – the fact that there were many accusations against French authorities and the UN for not acting earlier and more decisively to prevent the genocide, or at least to intervene more effectively, and sooner, to stop the slaughter; the South African TRC and other “truth commissions” and praise and criticisms these have attracted; the whole question of whether it is more moral to try to help people to “overcome” such things or to refuse their erasure from public and private awareness, are some of the issues to which the author may be alluding. For what Isaro wants to do is “to record the testimonies of every person who has experienced the tragedy: survivors, executioners, accomplices, and resistance fighters”. She adds that she wants particularly to “meet with the prisoners before anyone else [in the] belief that, in order to understand what happened, one must hear from those who caused it” (45). All the testimonies, once recorded, would go into a massive publication, she envisages.

Unsurprisingly, the funders express several objections to and qualms concerning Isaro’s proposed project, from the impracticability of producing a document encompassing the masses of testimonial material, to the remark (in a letter) that “preserving even a trace of such a past would amount to preventing people from moving on and keep visible the scar and thus, too, the memories it would arouse in each of them” (42).

Isaro for her part insists that the project is “not only appropriate but also necessary and urgent” (44). She insists, in replying to the objection, that those testifying might have malicious intentions or engage in special pleading, twisting “the facts”: “Even people’s lies, their omissions and exaggerations seem of interest to me [in order to shed] light on subjectivity, for it is on this that hatred and violence are based.” Even though the recorded accounts would be anonymous, Isaro says, reading others’ stories along with their own “will allow them to leave their own prison of grief, resentment, and hatred” (47).

As it happens, this idealism of hers will not stand up to her actual experience, but it is important that she make the attempt to achieve what she sets out above.

The interviewing panel of the funding body gives her a provisional go-ahead, but she is so eager to start that she sets off for Rwanda before the necessary additional funding has been obtained and without official backing from this foundation. Her most poignant expression of her hopes is in the statement: “Perhaps it is my dream that, thus acknowledged, each person’s suffering will be appeased and transformed into a new cohesion” (46).

But nothing like this will transpire.

The anonymous narrator reminds us, about halfway into the novel, that Isaro is herself as much an invented character, created by the author’s imagination, as Niko is (in turn) her invention and in a sense her reconstruction of the past she cannot remember for herself: “Imagine her beauty in any way you like. If it helps you to be with her, see yourself sitting behind or beside her, sharing her view over the outside and over herself. If you prefer, you’re inside her, you are her eyes, her breath, or her memory” (54).

From here we move into the part of the narrative that invokes Isaro’s presence in Rwanda, beginning with her taxi drive to a hotel. The taxi driver, a young Rwandan named Kizito, tells her a version of a local folk tale concerning a contest between a swift and graceful swallow and the ugly, mud-bound toad on which the swallow had landed, mistaking it for a stone. The swallow is narratively linked with Isaro by Kizito’s remark that the swallow should he imagined as being “elegant like you [Isaro]” (57).

She falls asleep before the tale is ended, but the recurrence of references to the tale indicates various ironic, or even mocking, parallels – to the Rwandan Hutus’ resentment of the assumption of “ethnic superiority” ascribed to Tutsis, or to Isaro’s own detachment from the mire of Rwanda’s genocidal history in which others were (toad-like) immersed or by which they were engulfed. For the swallow taunts the toad with its sedentary habits and boasts of its own flying skills and swiftness, while the toad challenges it to a contest of journeying to a far point, warning that it could win that race.

While waiting in her Rwandan hotel to hear about her project funding, Isaro decides to engage Kizito as her driver to take her on a trip to re-engage with her own country and its people. Although he initially misunderstands her desire and takes her to the Rwandan tourist highlights, Kizito also speaks of the Island of Nez (the French word for “nose”) as a place of interest – it is, he says, an island created by people’s habit of throwing stones into the lake in which the island is set so that the strange stone pile eventually assumed the remarkably recognisable shape of a gigantic nose. In a subtle allusion to the genocide Kizito explains that people’s claims that the nose-shaped island resembled the shape of their own noses “resulted in bloody arguments, and hundreds of thousands of people were killed” (67). (The Rwandan death toll for the 90-day massacre was nearly a million.) It is in a cave on this same island that Isaro will place Niko as she tells his tale of post-genocide, voluntary exile from his village. Beginning to accept the toad-like side of her own character (if I may so put it), Isaro writes after the years of severance from them to the adoptive parents from whom she had estranged herself that she realises now that she “only fled from, and hated, [her]self” (67).

When she gets a letter telling her that her (potential) funding from the foundation will not be granted, Isaro overcomes her initial despair and resolves nevertheless to continue with her project in her own way. She moves in with Kizito (who wants to marry her), brews banana beer for income and conducts interviews concerning their experience and memories of the massacre with people she goes out to find on the streets. She transcribes the taped interviews at night. Her French parents reply to her letter and tell her how her parents were killed in their house while she (then a little girl) remained undiscovered. As she reads, the first memory that returns is how her adoptive father had told her the story of the swallow and the toad on the plane on the way to France when she could not sleep. “Country, language, and manners came back to her naturally” (103) as she lives with Kizito and his family, conducting her research. Gradually, though, it becomes evident to them that her work is taking its toll, that “the task was beginning to consume her”, that her awareness of the huge difference between what people had told her and her own compressed accounts of the testimonies “transformed and ate away at her” (113).

What Isaro produces alongside her transcribed and compressed versions of the interviews she had conducted with Rwandans affected by the genocide are her numbered paragraphs in which she built up the character of Niko, whom, it appears, she invented in order to allow her to imagine how one could become a participant in such unprecedented brutality and also what the after-effects of such cruel and extreme acts might be. As she does so she is simultaneously, it seems, attempting to re-immerse herself in her nation’s culture and in that crucial part of its recent past from which she was excluded. The emotional and psychological risks Isaro is taking in doing so are perhaps reflected in the warnings she occasionally pens in the midst of her narrative of Niko’s life that are addressed to the reader, and in the strange visions and surreal events as well as (eventually, though only late in the text) accounts of atrocities perpetrated during the massacres.

Suggestions made by reviewers and in the translator’s introduction to the text, that the reader is persuaded to love and empathise with Niko in the first part of Isaro’s narrative, because he is portrayed as a pathetic victim of loneliness, familial rejection and social ostracism as well as general neglect, overlook the fact that Isaro from very early on in the Niko narrative gives one some indicators that he is not innocent, but was a participant in the genocidal horrors. In the paragraph numbered 18 (out of 252), Isaro describes Niko as perplexed and even indignant at the fact that observers and/or readers of her descriptions of his strange post-genocide life in a cave on the lake island Nez (which Isaro and Kizito had visited) would have theories that he withdrew there only because he is a somewhat visionary eccentric:

[H]e’d undoubtedly be embarrassed. He might even get angry. How can you not see the real reason for my withdrawal? he’d think. Do I have to unlock my breast so that what drove me here would be on display? Don’t you smell the odor that accuses me? And the sorrow that I breathe? (7)

In another passage close by, Isaro writes, “At the moment, the most noticeable difference between a mask and Niko’s face lies in the hunger, the exhaustion, and the guilt that cannot afflict a mere piece of wood with such intensity” (8, emphasis added).
This condition ascribed to Niko contrasts with his sense of relief upon his initial arrival on the island and at the cave, having (in Isaro’s later account) yielded out of the blue to an impulse to flee the village where he was born and later worked as a blacksmith and a potter. Then, he’d lain down to drink from the pool fed by a stream running out from the cave, lapping the water whose surface reflected the moon and wishing he could remain like that forever with the thought “glisten[ing] in his mind”: “[I]f happiness exists it must be something like this” and concluding, “Happiness is what you are forced to abandon” (18). Getting up at last, Niko finds some melons to feed on, but just as he sits down, feeling secure and comfortable, “the images of the killings resurface” and he is “overwhelmed by a flood of unbearable images and in the grip of tremors” as the melon he had picked explodes beside him in “the rumble of detonation” (19). Then again, Niko notices that “he’s in the same position in which he had surprised so many of his victims”; a “flood of memories” welling up “that sicken and exasperate him to the point that he vomits out everything he’s just eaten” (20).

One of the most brutal (mental) remarks that Isaro ascribes to Niko – and this is before we find out about his dreadful childhood – is the following: “Niko knows the face characteristic of those who’re dying all too well. He has embodied the warning often enough to take note of the common denominator in the expression of a prey. But he mustn’t let that sort of thinking run away with him” (25).

At the cave the leader of a band of monkeys who live in it, a large male, had first rescued Niko when he fell into a deep hole further into the cave, becoming unconscious, and then a second time (or so Niko works it out) when a sudden barrage of gunfire and explosions overtook them where they were gathering fruit. The leader monkey is killed by a shot to the head that hit him, Niko surmises, when he came to help him hide. Now Niko feels an obligation to the dead creature, in this emotion undoing, as it were, a resolve he had made as a child when his pet goat, his only friend on earth, was killed by a machete blow (a machete being a long cutting knife and chopper, perhaps the “favourite” killing instrument of the genocidaires). He had then decided that he could not risk becoming attached to anyone ever again. But the big monkey had behaved as his guardian, unasked. Niko seems initially to earn the other monkeys’ praise for bringing back the male leader’s corpse and hanging it up as if like a talisman at the mouth of the cave. But their noisy “gratefulness” is nearly unbearable to his abnormal sensitivity and Niko wonders when this condition began in him: “Is it because or in spite of this that he’s killed so many people? Do those who kill have a reason for doing so? And those who die?” (28). These are Niko’s moments of encountering “the past ahead”.

Much later in the narrative, having evoked how Niko was born, mute and unnoticed, in a corner of the hut where his mother had died in giving birth to him, how he was unwanted by his father and rejected by his stepmother, shunned by other children for his strangeness, we are told some of his strange, intertwining visions. The only person who ever had a bit of time for Niko was his uncle Gaspard, the village blacksmith and potter. Gradually, Niko had taken over the work. One day Niko had an accident and a heavy metal vessel knocked him unconscious. During his brief coma he had a series of dreams. An especially significant part of his vision indicates that he had obscurely sensed the coming violence in Rwanda and had been assigned the task of warning people that “half of them will end up butchered like cattle” and that “blood will flow, unprecedented amounts of blood” (72).

The fact that Niko has a machete is noted as significant by the strange warning voices he hears; they, telling one another to avoid the “sickening” details, raise the following philosophical point: “It’s true that, under certain circumstances, killing someone or leaving him to die is just as tempting as saving him” (19) – a bleak thought indeed, if also a refusal to allow typical self-exculpating defences from killers that they “had no choice”. The remark reiterates and confirms, as well as insisting on, the acknowledgement of the truth of the availability of moral alternatives: “And don’t make any mistake, in some cases being spineless or cruel is just as tempting as being brave or good” (72).

Later during his series of unconsciousness visions, Niko imagines being shown “the tree of life” – a tree on which individual leaves, like a type of gravestone, contain details of people’s lives and their eventual fate. It is here that Niko learns (in Isaro’s narrative of his life before the genocide begins) that he will kill his father, in whose company he is in several of his visions (unlike in his “actual” life).

Niko wakes up after passing out from the blow to his head to hear a cacophony of “songs, speeches, cries, explosions, and prayers” indicating that the genocide has begun. A young woman he had secretly admired runs desperately past his forge, chased by a group of men, who on spotting him all veer in his direction (he may deliberately have distracted them to help the woman). The men insist fiercely that he accompany them, saying that even though his father is “with” them, Niko’s mother had been a “barbarian” and that Niko’s father had, after her death, married another of her “kind”. They proclaim: “[H]is son [Niko] will have to cut him down himself if he wants to be one of us [murderers]. … Otherwise we’ll kill them both” (79).

Like some others, Niko is forced to participate in a cruel ritual. Confronted with a bound person (in his case, his father, although Niko tries hard to tell himself that the man is not his father), a new captive is given a weapon and told to kill that person. If he fails or refuses to do so, he and the bound man will be killed. Niko ends the bound man’s life with a blow to the head.

At this stage he still has enough sensitivity to be unable to face the fact that the man he had killed was his father, but soon enough “insensitivity flowed into him like cement and set in his face” (83). In fact, Niko becomes the leader of a band of eager killers, all of them equipped with the metal implements (such as machetes) which he had forged earlier for more peaceful purposes. At night, the men gather to drink copious amounts of alcohol and feast on meat. Soon they no longer only brag, at these gatherings, about how many people they had butchered during the day, but elaborate on the cruelties and perversities to which they had subjected their victims before or in killing them. Niko’s uncle Gaspard, too decrepit to join in their activities, spends the evenings drinking with them and dies, unnoticed, among them one night after drinking more than his body could handle.

The sentence “In certain cases, being cruel is as tempting as being good” comes back to haunt Niko. He now recognises that he had not understood that “temptation is the enticement of security”; that “the choice [… lies or lay] between standing on the side of those who commit the horror or on the side of those who suffer it” (85). Having chosen the former role, in the midst of the weeks of killing, Niko for the first time feels accepted as a member of a community. He feels “respected” and that he is in command of “unlimited power”; even (ironically) “being mute contribute[d] to his authority over the Intentionally Enraged” – the horribly named group of killers that he leads. Eventually, however, “there’s no-one left to kill” and all they are left with is the stench of unburied corpses that they now hurriedly inter in an attempt “to allow the killers and their accomplices to forget acts they had and hadn’t committed” (85).

Wondering whether the old saying that spilt blood cannot be obliterated is false, Isaro’s narrative voice remarks of life in the village in the immediate aftermath of the murders, that “erasure followed by oblivion promptly became a reality”, since “no one spoke of, or alluded to, the massacres” (86).

Niko resumes his former occupation in the workshop and at the forge exactly as before; only, there are fewer people in the village now. Yet one day, out of the blue, the words that had prophesied his parricide, “killed by his son”, hit him “like a mighty deluge” and the whole period he had attempted to erase from his memory re-presents itself “like a finger pointing at him”, and he is horrified by “Those eyes. Those bodies. Those screams whose words he didn’t know. That blood” (89). It is the torture of these memories that forces him to flee from the village. He chooses the cave on the island of Nez because that was where he had been initiated as a boy.

Of course, after an initial period when Niko was adjusting to life on the island, the dreadful memories and his role as a killer of innocents, of young love and promising life resurface to merge into a single vision of his murdering a young couple. He sees a vision of his father as his accuser, prosecutor and executioner, as insisting that he could have fled the killings instead of participating in and even leading them. He dreams that his father rams a spear into his skull between his eyes, then wakes up to the realisation that he has been reduced to an utterly abject life, constantly watched by the monkeys who allow him neither rest nor food. Isaro describes his state of mind thus: “He finds it ludicrous to see his situation as a punishment. It’s too mild compared to what he has perpetrated, and that leads him back to the beginning of the loop: shame and guilt” (103).

Isaro puts three victims of the massacre on the island who have come there to die: a woman who was known to have been raped by the genocidaires and remained psychologically disturbed though she survived; the village storyteller whom his community members had incarcerated in isolation to stop him from telling any stories about the massacres; and an old schoolteacher who had denounced the killings and sheltered potential victims in his home. He had been forced to turn fifteen of them out when he got word that his home would be raided. They did not obey his warning to scatter when fleeing and were massacred as a group. Upon hearing what happened to them the schoolteacher, an innocent and former saviour, had felt so terrible that he, too, withdrew to the island to die.

None of them is aware of Niko’s presence, but their abject lives on the island, and their deaths, preceding his own, remind the reader of Isaro’s understanding that the effect of memories of the genocide destroys both “guilty” and “innocent”.

Soon after the deaths of these three Niko, too, reduced to a skeleton capable only of feeling pain, dies.

However, the paragraph of one word, “Nothing” (116), describing Niko’s obliteration, is not the last one in Isaro’s narrative.

About Isaro’s own end, the novel’s nameless narrator writes that Kizito and his family, imagining that Isaro’s self-isolation in her room was “mere sulking”, “will change their minds, perhaps, when they hear something fall in the room, and when that heavy sound is followed by a silence too long and too perfect for it not to worry them” (113). The novel’s final paragraph confirms earlier hints that Isaro commits suicide like a Roman – by falling on the dagger that she had kept hidden in her skirt; a death requiring great resolve in that she had had to fight her own reflexes by keeping it pointed at her heart as she fell forward.

The penultimate section of the novel ends on the paragraph with which Isaro had ended her narrative of Niko; here, too, addressing the reader (118):

Dear friend, this story belongs to you now. If it interested you, read it again one day, being careful not to become too absorbed by the play of the narrative, for what’s essential lies elsewhere. If it seemed clumsy to you, tell it to others, but improve upon what I may have phrased badly. Finally, if it moved you, rest assured that you ought not to take it for anything other than an unintended lie, a remedy that doesn’t work.
Isaro Gervais,
One rainy day.

 

* Le passé devant soi (the original French version of the text) won the Ouest-France Prize in 2008.

 

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