Gaby is just a boy. He steals mangoes and disobeys his father. He patrols his block with friends. He imagines his first love, his school pen-pal, freckled and green-eyed in her Orleans garden. He likes the sugar in ice cream but not the cold, swimming but not the chlorine. Gaby is just a ten-year-old living in Burundi.
“The war between the Tutsis and Hutus,” Gaby asks his father, “is it because they don’t have the same land?”
“No,” his father responds, “they have the same country.”
“So…they don’t have the same language.”
“No, they speak the same language.”
“So, they don’t have the same God?”
“No, they have the same God.”
“So… Why are they at war?”
“Because they don’t have the same nose.”
In wry and quick strokes, this dialogue captures a young boy’s earnest inquiry and a father’s ironic but not altogether dishonest attempt to explain the origins of the Rwandan genocide. The father's answer is a formidable combination of humor and threat, at once a punch line and a reckoning of implausible violence, a nuanced complexity that is a distinguishing feature of Gaël Faye’s prose in his debut novel, Small Country. A French bestseller and winner of the Prix Goncourt des lycéens, Small Country, translated by Sarah Ardizzone, holds a mirror to the childhood of the Burundi-born rapper and author. In 1995, Faye emigrated to France with his French father, Rwandan mother, and younger sister. They were a Tutsi family living in Bujumbura and decided to flee when they realized that the conflicts in war-torn Rwanda threatened their hometown. Not unlike Gaby, Faye contended with the violence in his homeland and neighboring Rwanda, and the sudden shock of a new life in a congested Versailles apartment following his family’s flight. In his perceptiveness, developing love of literature, and nostalgia for a prewar idyll, Gaby’s character reflects not only Faye’s own experience, but the artistic path he would follow after leaving Burundi.
Through the eyes of young Gaby, the world is often distilled to simple answers. History narrows to an Occam’s razor thrift: a conflict born from a nose. The early dialogue between Gaby and his father is formative in Gaby’s understanding of the regular ethnic clashing. Around town Gaby and his friends study noses and draw conclusions. They make mistakes. Their games are not malicious, but plain and curious, rooted in a history they do not fully understand. But as Gaby ages and genocidal violence continues nearby, drawing him and his family into the fray, nasal distinctions fail to explain the polarization, hatred, and increasing ethnic attacks. As Small Country develops, Gaby labors to understand the historical pitting of Hutu against Tusti, a fight that unfortunately extends its ideological and physical battlelines to Bujumbura. Simultaneously, he feels the friction between childhood and impending adulthood, Rwanda and Burundi, words and their meanings, placing varying tensions in complicated centrifuge.
On the way to a family wedding, Gaby and his relatives dance in their seats to the radio. It is a carefree scene in which Gaby, not one for dancing, courts a moment of self-possession. But the rhythmic order is quickly surrendered to a strange and quieting stillness. Suddenly no one but Gaby is dancing. Something has come to pass, he realizes. A phrase from the radio host has silenced the others. “‘He said all cockroaches must die,’” Gaby’s mother explains. “Inyenzi,” she says: cockroaches, Tutsis, us.
The reveal is two-fold. Gaby has had a sudden confidence in allowing himself to dance, one of many advances that trace Gaby’s move into adulthood. But his development is double-edged, as this transition implies an undressing of innocence, a recalibration of the peace Gaby knows, and the dismantling of a worldview in which a cockroach is a brown slick insect and nothing more. Bildungsromans are traditionally presented as the inner struggles of an individual against the backdrop of an impassive world. But Small Country holds the Bildungsroman trope not against a neutral world, but a convulsive one, one that is also contending with itself, shifting in the background as Gaby shifts in the foreground. While Gaby matures there is another battle playing out on a larger stage, sometimes darting forward to meet Gaby head on.
There is a beauty in these tensions existing on the same plane, and a form that emerges from their interlacing development. A moment of personal shift is often married to violent progressions of civil war. Gaby’s courage to jump into a pool from a high post is followed by an encounter with a shetani: the black shadow of a horse, a militant force passing the car where Gaby sits wet and proud and miraculously alive from his earlier bravery. At other times, personal and historical tensions are conflated: Gaby is asked, by his friends as well as military men, to set fire to a car bearing the trapped body of a rival Hutu.
Small Country maps personal and historical conflict by attending to their subtle connections. Gaby’s world contains no hierarchies, and without these distinctions, oppositions fail to find clear counterparts: childhood is not necessarily the opposite of adulthood, and the tension between Hutu and Tutsi is not separate from growing up. Rwanda does not just rub against Burundi, but grates against childhood, just as adulthood struggles against Hutu and Burundi against Tutsi.
Faye forces conceptions like childhood and adulthood and The State from their rigid definitions, and asks the reader to consider what they mean, how words might be susceptible to or formative of one another. When words are vulnerable to new meaning, how does this shift the larger view? What dangers and new possibilities open up when we let words—small words, weighty words—slip from held meanings? Small Country carries these questions through its entirety, comporting its inquiry with deft prose and empathic characters.
Before Gaby’s family flees, before ethnic cleansing and violent summits, Gaby and his friend, Gino, sneak into the cabaret, “the greatest institution in Burundi.” The cabaret is a singular draw, famed for free speech and copious drink. Here, under a dark iron canopy, men unwind, shedding their skins of rank and status to engage, unburdened, in political conversation.
Gino orders beers for himself and Gaby. The boys spend the evening drinking and listening. Maybe it is the dark, maybe the boys are drunk, but words here seem to drift, unattributed, taking form through repetition or else sinking below the surface of conversation. The drinkers speak of the upcoming presidential election, of fear, of false democracy, of the encroachment of western influence, and between these substantive exchanges Gaby hears the repeated “I’m thirsty.” The political talk increases, the feeling of impending crisis rises, and still, between provocations and pontifications comes the familiar, I’m thirsty, I’m thirsty. At some point, political talk collides with the intermittent thirst and the dialogue transforms. Simple demands bleed into the theoretical, and in this way political sentiments form in the dark.
This scene seems to pause, draw time inward, and hold Faye’s novel still for a beat. Time is not made in this scene, but gathered paused, considered, and for a few pages the metronome’s pace is different. Although this scene is not the last, Small Country managed to leave me here, or rather, to draw me back even after moving me forward. It left me at the sensitive space between countries, between anticipation and arrival, between awareness and conclusion. It left me with young Gaby in a state of potential, slightly drunk, eddying between what is and what will be.