Excerpted from A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali by Gil Courtemanche. Copyright © 2003 by Gil Courtemanche. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?
It’s the classic story. I always wanted to be a writer but I became a journalist, though this didn’t stop me from writing poetry, songs, television comedy. I came to writing books late, because I admired too many writers. I didn’t feel equal to it, and I had the impression that to publish you had to be either a genius (rare), or a bit pretentious. And then, to impress an intellectual woman, I think, I wrote my first book. The way it was received gave me the courage to publish more. And now I continue.
2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?
It was a long internal journey, although I don’t like that expression. I passed a lot of time in Rwanda before the genocide while making a documentary on AIDS. I made some friends there, almost all of whom were killed during the genocide, and more still died from AIDS. I returned there several months after the genocide to gather testimonies of survivors and also to try to discover how my friends had disappeared. After several years, I said to myself that the only way to tell their actual life was to invent their last days and their death. But it’s also the fruit of a reflection, perhaps subconscious, on traditional journalism that hardly ever succeeds in telling us about people in torment, only the torment itself with people inside that one cannot distinguish or identify.
3) What is it that you're exploring in this book?
The coupling of life and death, the African coupling of sex and death, but above all the capacity of humans to be greater than all the horrors that they can invent. The absolute presence of life even in the most horrific moments of history. The superiority of life. And a bit about love that sometimes elevates lovers.
4) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?
I think it’s Gentille because, like all the African women I’ve met, she has the spirit of what Paul Eluard calls “the persistent desire to endure”.
5) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?
Only to think that these are our neighbours and that everything the media tell us about tribal wars is just a big heap of bullshit, fed by an unconscious racism or by a total ignorance of Africa.
6) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?
Yes, in Spain a young radio reporter, as elegant as a Flamenco dancer, started out by saying: Why write another book about the Second World War? I should say that he had admitted to having not read the book. I didn’t think that he hadn’t even read the press release and that he thought perhaps that Kigali was a French town.
7) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?
For me, I think of “work” as what I do for a living and not as in “work of art”. So, no. Because I don’t treat my work as a journalist and my work as a writer of books any differently. I’m always doing the same thing: telling stories. So if I tell them well or badly, that depends on taste, context or unconscious prejudice. But the great many articles, reviews or profiles in all the countries in which I am published have convinced me that what I am telling is of interest to hundreds of thousands of people.
8) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?
Albert Camus, André Malraux, Graham Greene, Paul Éluard.
9) If you weren't writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?
Musician or cook (in my own restaurant).
Probably the passion for the human being and all its creation: especially jazz, wine and food, hockey and Canadian football, sitcoms like Friends or All in the Family, learning, travelling, telling stories and, mostly, being in love.
10) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?
The Bible. But the story would be quite different. Neither Sharon, Hamas, Bush or Bin Laden could invoke the name of God for justifying their killings. They would be in God's jail.
More seriously: The Outsider by Albert Camus or The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.
1. Courtemanche has said: “People say to me it’s the first time they feel Africa, it’s the first time they understand what happened in Rwanda.” (The Herald, Glasgow) Which parts of the novel in particular managed to show the situation in a new light for you?
2. Why do you think the author, a well-known journalist, decided to tell this story as fiction? Why do you think it became such an international phenomenon, published in 14 languages in one season?
3. Which was your favourite character in the novel, and why?
4. Cyprien says, “You could live only if you knew you were going to die.” If the novel asks, like all great literature, how are we to live our lives and how to die — what conclusions, if any, did you draw?
5. Since Whites are depicted as responsible for so much trouble in Rwanda, how do you feel about Valcourt’s relationship with Gentille? How does their love story fit with the terrifying depictions of rape and murder? How did you feel about Valcourt’s return to Kigali after the genocide?
6. Courtemanche draws an explicit comparison between the Rwandan genocide and the Nazi Holocaust during World War II, stating that the killers killed with such savagery because “they were too poor to build gas chambers.” Did you find this a vivid comparison?
7. How does the novel compare with your expectations of it?
8. “A few pages are enough for you to be swept away into the terrifying madness of a country” (Le Nouvel Observateur). How does the author manage to give both a wide vision of the situation in the country and an intimate portrait of the characters?