- Murambi, the Book of Bones: A Novel
Can literature serve as witness to genocide? Can fiction capture ineluctable truths about sensational violence, which risks becoming banal through portrayals in other media? With this English translation of his fifth novel, Boubacar Boris Diop responds not only "yes"—that literature can indeed play these roles—but also that "it must." Murambi, the Book of Bones, is one of several African novels to come out of Nocky Djedanoum's "Rwanda: écrire par devoir de mémoire" project (Rwanda: To Write Against Oblivion), which brought ten African writers to Rwanda for two months in 1998 to engage with the country's tragic history and the 1994 genocide. Only four works from the project are currently available in English. Murambi is an important contribution to world literature and was recognized by the jury of the Zimbabwe International Book Fair as one of "Africa's 100 Best Books of the 20th Century." Fiona Mc Laughlin has made a masterful translation, and the introduction by Mc Laughlin and the foreword by Eileen Julien are nice additions that help contextualize the novel and its place in world literature.
Written in the polyvocal style of Diop's previous novels, Murambi draws the reader into the complex experience of the 1994 genocide and its aftermath recounted from numerous points of view. The book opens on the evening of April 6, 1994, as Michel Serumundo, a Tutsi businessman, leaves his shop late at night, oblivious that President Habyarimana's plane has been shot down. He slowly makes his way home on foot, skirting the barricades set up by "young men," as the first hours of the genocide unfold. After this initial chapter, Diop moves on to other voices; we never learn Serumundo's [End Page 213] fate.
Diop's tale centers on the experiences of Cornelius Uvimana, a Rwandan history teacher living in Djibouti at the time of the genocide. Uvimana returns home in 1998 (the same time as Diop's visit to Rwanda) to come face-to-face with the horrible truth that his mother and siblings had died in 1994 at a school, along with thousands of others, where his father had organized the massacre. During his visit, Uvimana faces simultaneously the painful loss of his mother and siblings, and the shame of being the son of a particularly infamous perpetrator.
The novel is a powerful account that grapples with issues central to genocide, writing, and responsibility. It captures some of the complexity of individual Rwandans' experiences of "the events of 1994," as so many of them refer to the genocide and civil war, and their aftermath. Despite attempts to capture the contradictions of the genocide through Uvimana's ties to "both sides," at times Diop's version of the events of 1994 are too black and white: the genocide organizers and perpetrators are motivated by straightforward greed, hunger for power, or ethnic hatred. The much more subtle and confusing motivations for killing that have emerged through in-depth social science research on perpetrators (for instance, Scott Straus, The Order of Genocide [Cornell 2006]) do not appear in Diop's account. Further, the ethnic designations "Hutu" and "Tutsi" appear to be accepted, unambiguous facts for Diop's characters rather than part of the nuanced ambiguity of real Rwandans' lived experiences.
For the reader familiar with Rwanda, the devil is in the details, and certain details are not quite right: what people eat, what people say, and what people do are just not fully Rwandan. Indeed, the most oft-repeated of these details is the protagonist's very name, Cornelius Uvimana. "Uvimana" is not Kinyarwanda; it could be "Uwimana," meaning "child of God." Other details are more subtle. In the first pages of the book Serumundo, responding to an aggressive soldier's questioning, says that he is the "owner of the Fontana video shop" (5); a Rwandan business owner would never be so direct and would never have attracted attention to himself...