A Rough Ride: A Review of Gaël Faye’s Small Country
Rapper Gaël Faye’s story of a Burundian kid who grew up facing a genocide brought only one key lesson – rapping doesn’t always prepare you for writing.
Burundi is a small East African country that has suffered since being colonized by the Europeans. Much like its neighbor, Rwanda, it has a turbulent history owing to colonialism, racial tensions, and political instability. The two countries were, in fact, the same Belgian colony until a forceful split that happened prior to their independence in 1962. As such, ethnic tensions between the Hutu and the Tutsi, the main cause of the 1995 Rwandan genocide, were equally present in Burundi.
The protagonist, Gabriel (or Gaby), was born in the 1980s and grew up in Burundi. Born to a French father, Gaby found himself in a very privileged position and was largely shielded from the events that were happening around him. The story unfolded in his pre-teen years, when tensions finally boiled over following a Burundian military coup and the Rwandan genocide.
In Small Country, Gaël Faye found all the elements to build an intriguing novel. Novelists and movie writers have told the story of the bloodiest genocide many times over, often from the perspective of the Rwandans who faced terrible incidents on the ground. In particular, the award-winning Hotel Rwanda was a soul-crushing display that garnered international attention. Yet, far fewer attempts have been made to share the story from a Burundian’s perspective, and most people are unaware of the country’s whereabouts, let alone Burundi’s historical ties with Rwanda. With Small Country, I looked forward to a story that was familiar, yet completely different.
Faye also gave Gaby the perfect family background. His European blood provided him privileges, but it equally represented a sin in the eyes of the locals. His Tutsi mother, who arrived as a refugee from Rwanda, begged for the family to move away from Burundi, even though Gaby clearly identified with his birthplace. At home, he was being cared for by both Hutu and Tutsi workers. It all seemed a perfect setup to tell the story of a hero who would suffer through the ethnic tension and come to terms with his real needs and wants.
The author also unveiled some intriguing details about life in Burundi. He offered glimpses of Europeans who lived a disconnected lifestyle, carefree kids who went around stealing mangoes, as well as the cabaret bars where people could talk freely as lights were not lit. These details helped readers to better connect to the story.
Yet, the one place that the author didn’t properly describe well was Burundi. Few people know much, if anything, about Burundi. Its geography. Weather. The mix of people. What people do. The author spent little time scene-setting these at the start. In fact, following a very short, introductory Chapter One, the author immediately sent Gaby and his family on a trip out to Zaire, a neighbouring country with few connections to the story. I scratched my head wondering why Gaby described Zaire, without first giving a detailed account of Bujumbura, Gaby’s home, and where the story mostly took place. Similarly, the author started the story with Gaby’s father claiming that the difference between Hutu and Tutsi is that “they have a different nose”. And that was it - the novel then contained few clear explanations to the decades, if not centuries, of rivalry that ultimately brought the genocide.
To offer more context to the story, the author then introduced letters between Gaby and others, most notably Laure, his pen pal from France. Yet, the letters were infrequent, popping up in seemingly random places in the novel. It was not only difficult to comprehend how deep the relationship was between the pen pals, but I also struggled to comprehend why a pair of 11-year-old pen pals were discussing military dictatorship over mail.
The author blasted short chapters containing multiple scenes to the reader, without spending time to explain the connections. That, perhaps, rightfully represented how people interacted with the world: day-by-day, event-by-event. Yet, I was distracted by the minuscule details. A parrot that was good at mimicking father’s voice. A barbecue crocodile. A horse that escaped and later slaughtered. I, admittedly, fell in love with the parrot and could not help myself but to spend more time thinking about him than Gaby (it has zero relevance and I still don’t know if it lived).
The side characters, Gaby’s friends and house workers, were equally unremarkable. The author offered each of them a personality and a role to play, only for it to fall completely flat as he failed in creating backstories for the characters. Prothé, a Hutu cook, and Innocent, a Tutsi truck driver, both working under the same roof, looked like a recipe for spectacular fireworks. Rather, we were asked to settle for “I never discovered what it was about, but Innocent raised his hand against Prothé. Papa fired Innocent on the spot for refusing to apologize, and for continuing to threaten everybody.”
As for Gaby? It was equally difficult to identify any conflicts. He was mostly placed in a passive capacity – perhaps rightly so for a pre-teen: Gaby did not face a difficult, consequential decision until the book was 95% completed. Even that decision seemed to have come by chance and was made without much room for deliberation and consideration. In the end, Faye's novel read like the narrative of a kid who just so happened to be in Burundi and he was handing in his diary as homework.
It is amicable for Gael Faye to write his first novel on a story so close to his scars. Sadly, I finished the book wishing that I had instead spent the time on the “Burundi” entry on Wikipedia, which, if chaotic, is more detailed and informative.