Friday, January 21, 2011

Boubacar Boris Diop's Book of Bones

As it happened I was attracted to the title of Boubacar Boris Diop's 2000 novel Murambi, The Book of Bones, and the high tone of that title (Murambi, le livre des ossements; translated into English by Fiona Mc Laughlin 2006 and published by Indiana University Press) is maintained throughout this excellent short novel. It is the best entry yet in a young genre of novels and memoirs that document the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when, following patterns of ethnic violence that emerged in Rwanda in the 1950s, elements from the poorer, majority Hutu group systematically killed somewhere around 800,000 of the socioeconomically dominant Tutsis.

G. and I had recently been really engaged by the 2004 movie "Hotel Rwanda," directed by Terry George and starring Don Cheadle as Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager who sheltered hundreds of Tutsis during the genocide. That movie led to us getting a copy of Shake Hands With the Devil, the 2003 memoir by Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, UN commander in Rwanda in 1993-4 (and the basis for the character played by Nick Nolte in the film). Before that I had noticed (again because of the title) We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, an actual fax message and the title of Philip Gourevitch's 1999 anthology of oral histories (and where the world first heard the story of Paul Rusesabagina).

Meanwhile in 1998 Fest'Africa, an African cultural festival based in France, organized a trip for ten established African writers to go to Rwanda with the expressed purpose of documenting and memorializing the genocide in African literature. Monique Ilboudo of Burkina Faso, Tierno Monenembo of Guinea, and Veronique Tadjo of Ivory Coast are members of "the expedition" who have subsequently published books, as well as this one from Diop.

The Book of Bones explores the possibility and responsibility of literature in the face of evil and suffering. The narrator, Cornelius, was an expatriot on Djibouti during the genocide and returns four years later. His own assurance about who and what he is, and his attitudes towards his country and what has happened, are tested as he finally confronts his own family's history. Diop also devotes the last quarter or so of this 181-page book to a discussion of French policies, which he not surprisingly depicts as cynical in the extreme.

A very good book, I recommend it if you are interested in this difficult subject matter.

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