Book of the month: Roland Rugero

 

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It’s always a joy to hear of new publications of works from countries that have little or no commercially available literature in English translation.

The east African nation of Burundi is a prime example. Back during my project to read a book from every country in the world in a year, I could find no fiction translated from either French or Kirundi, the nation’s two official languages at the time (English was made an official language in 2014). In the end, I was indebted to the Burundian academic Marie-Thérèse Toyi, who generously couriered me a copy of her self-published English-language work Weep Not, Refugee so that I could read a novel from her homeland.

Until this month, that book was the only fiction I had read from Burundi. But now, thanks to a new publication brought out by Phoneme Media, that has changed.

Christopher Schaefer’s translation of Roland Rugero’s second novel Baho! is, according to its publisher, the first full-length work of fiction by a Burundian author to be translated into English. Certainly my research supports this claim (although I’d love to hear from you if you know differently). As such, the book is something of a landmark and another welcome step in the much-needed drive to bring more Francophone African literature into the world’s most-published language.

The novel centres around a misunderstanding in a fictional rural region, called Kanya. When mute teenager Nyamuragi’s attempts to ask directions are misunderstood as an attempt to rape a local girl, his community is thrown into uproar. As feelings spill over into a desire for mob justice, the fragile peace of the area is shattered, revealing the fault lines left by the nation’s recent traumatic past.

This is a striking and surprising book. With snatches of story and backstory told from diverse perspectives, as well as numerous digressions on big questions such as the purpose of art and how the fact that Kirundi has the same word for ‘tomorrow’ and ‘yesterday’ may elucidate the characters’ relationship with time, the book bristles with insights into the culture in which it is set. I was particularly struck by a passage that explores how the violent events of the recent past have ruptured and warped the language, making people reach for ever more outrageous things to swear by because ‘with all this death among us, […] speech has become divided, multiplied, and fragmented. Its unity has been irreparably shattered. So we no longer believe in the curse or the consequences it invokes.’

There is a directness and freshness to some of the writing, which reminds me of certain passages of Weep Not, Refugee in which Toyi, much like Rugero, seems to reach from the text to grab readers by the shoulders and make us listen. Although the 1993 genocide is not much mentioned and, as Schaefer points out in his ‘Translator’s Note’, the words ‘Hutu’ and ‘Tutsi’ appear only once in the book, the sense that trauma has remoulded society underpins each page. We see it in the way people’s judgment is ‘clouded by the violence’ and ‘the obsessive fear of rape has haunted this country’s women’.

Other historical influences pervade the text too. We see the fusion of colonial and indigenous culture in the way Rugero weaves and sometimes smashes together the French literary tradition, Biblical references, and Burundian oral tales and proverbs. Kirundi peppers the text and numerous passages reveal an inventive approach to structure and narrative – an example being the chapter at the market, which is told purely in unattributed dialogue, so that it seems that we as readers are standing in the press of the crowd, able only to make out a series of disembodied shouts and comments.

That said, not all of the book is successful. Even taking into account the author’s assertion to Schaefer that he has deliberately mimicked the Burundian oral tradition of shifting perspectives and the trait of sometimes overwhelming listeners with contradictory information in conversation, the narrative makes for a patchy and sometimes frustrating read.  Although some of the imagery is arresting, there are a number of odd descriptions and awkward word choices (whether Rugero’s or Schaefer’s) that obscure and muddy the sense. A number of sentences are so cluttered with adjectives that it feels like trying to pick your way through an obstacle course. The ending is also a little bald.

But perhaps much of this is fitting in a novel that centres around a misunderstanding, in which communication is examined and found wanting. In testing the limits of the novel form with the weight of structures it does not often bear, Rugero is doing important work – and it is inevitable that there will be a few creaks and cracks along the way.

Problems aside, there is no question that this book is a welcome addition to the English-language world. By virtue of its very existence, it opens the way for the creation and dissemination of more stories from regions and communities that are too often overlooked. As I know from my conversations with writers like Marie-Thérèse Toyi , the mere existence of books by a compatriot can give an aspiring storyteller courage to try to express themselves in words. May there soon be many more.

Baho! by Roland Rugero, translated from the French by Christopher Schaefer (Phoneme Media, 2016)

Burundi: diaspora power

The chances of finding a Burundian book in English were looking slim. There were novels and non-fiction books out there, but they were all in French. None of them seemed to have made it through the translation net into the English-language market.

Having exhausted my googling powers, I decided to turn to the Burundian diaspora for help and fired off an email to the United Burundian-American Community Association in the hopes that its members might be able to point me in the direction of some literature that fitted the bill.

I got quite a few emails back. Several suggested analytical books by Western academics charting the causes and consequences of the civil war that ravaged Burundi for much of the mid-late twentieth century. Interesting though I’m sure these are, they weren’t quite what I was looking for. Others mentioned books in French – again, close but no cigar.

One person even asked me to help them finish a book they were writing about their own experiences in Burundi. As I have slightly less than two days to get through each book for this project, I thought this might be pushing it slightly and had to decline.

Then I had an email from Edouard. An old classmate of his from Burundi had published two novels in English. Her name was Marie-Thérèse Toyi. He hoped this helped.

It certainly did. After a bit more searching, I found contact details for Toyi, who is now based at Benson Idahosa University in Nigeria, and emailed her to ask how I might be able to get hold of one of her books as they were not commercially available online. She kindly offered to courier one to me. A few days later, I was holding a battered copy of her novel Weep Not, Refugee complete with a greeting from the author written inside the cover.

Following the fortunes of Wache Wacheke Watachoka, a Burundian boy growing up in a refugee camp because of the ethnic war between the Hutus and Tutsis in his homeland, the novel explores ‘the overpowering burden of forcing oneself to live in a foreign land where you are most undesirable’. As Wache grows up and has to confront the absurdity of the ‘nose complex’ (a widespread belief that the shape of the nose distinguishes Hutus from Tutsis) that has torn his country apart, the narrative reveals the cruel partiality that governs much of everyday life for the most vulnerable and exposes the injustices against which displaced people have to fight simply to stay alive.

The episodic narrative comes across with freshness and immediacy, at times reaching out of  the pages of the book to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck:

‘Just for you to have an idea what it was like, take a cup of ground red pepper, pour it on your bleeding wound and you will have a little idea what it was like. If you have no wound, well, we cannot discuss again, because there are things which you will never be able to understand.’

This can be very compelling, particularly when it comes to reflections on the powerlessness of refugees in lands where their rights exist ‘only in the heart of the person [they are] dealing with’, the indignity of living on handouts, the injustice of imprisonment and the cruel arbitrariness of ethnic conflicts. The section where Wache at last returns to Burundi and, at the age of 26, enrols in school only to find that he has become an alien in his own land is particularly memorable.

At times, the declamatory style and the heaping of tragedy upon tragedy (while no doubt true to many people’s experiences) is hard to swallow. However, this may say more about me as a privileged Westerner than it does about the book.

All the same, I couldn’t help wishing that Toyi had trusted her story and characters to speak for themselves throughout rather than feeling the need to harness them to drive home her appeal to the reader to help improve the lot of displaced peoples at the end. This is the only part of the book that feels forced and it stands out because the experiences and reflections narrated in the rest of the novel are far more persuasive than the closing rhetoric.

Nevertheless, this is a fascinating and valuable insight into a situation most of us cannot begin to imagine. It gives a voice to people whose stories we mostly hear second-hand from Western charity appeals and reporters. It was a great privilege to read it and it will stay with me for a long time. Many thanks to the UBACA, Edouard and Marie-Thérèse Toyi.

Weep Not, Refugee by Marie-Thérèse Toyi (Emhai Printing & Publishing Company, 2007)