Small Country by Gaël Faye trans. by Sarah Ardizzone

Gabriel, or Gaby, is a half-French, half-Rwandan boy living in Burundi. His mother fled Rwanda in the last Rwandan war. She is Tutsi. The tribal, ethnical, and national divisions seem distant from Gaby at the beginning of the novel, but as Small Country develops, the young boy is forced to take sides. From the safety of his street he is forced into the bloodshed.

I thought I would love this story. I felt moved by its outlines, ensnared by its promises of what might unfold, of the awkward dissonance of belonging and difference. In many ways I did get what I was expecting. I was taken into Burundi. I could dip my toes into Lake Tanganyika. I was made to understand what it might feel like to hide on cold tile corridors, bolstered by multiple concrete walls far from windows. And yet…

In Chapter 23, Gaby writes about his friend who wins an argument by expressing his grief. He says, ‘Suffering is a wildcard in the game of debate, it wipes the floor with all other arguments’. In a sense any lack of appreciation I feel towards the book sits on this difficult boundary especially as there was so much to admire in Small Country. I particularly enjoyed the ending. It leaves a challenging, bitter taste in the mouth, questioning foreign interaction and interference in Africa, making Gaby’s mother a symbol of what is left after the fighting is done. And yet I still feel somehow at the same distance from events as Gaby appears to be, despite what he was forced to do. 

I’m sure many will enjoy Small Country – it has beauty, poise and shows just how oddly politics can transmute into children’s lives – but I didn’t fall in love with it.

Next week I’m reading The Farm by Joanne Ramos.

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