No Small Voice
As the unique lens through which we witness a turbulent time in history, Gaël Faye’s Small Country asks us to choose – between the known and the unknown; between fear and freedom; and between the child and the adult in us all
I discovered Small Country at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year, in a session on the writer’s craft. It was an intimate panel of three authors, and as Gaël Faye read out an extract from the prologue of his book, his hip-hop artist and writer-selves melted together in the musicality and power of his words. It was one of those rare moments where I knew instinctively: I had to read this book.
Eleven-year-old Gabriel, the son of a French father and a Rwandan mother, grows up in an affluent neighbourhood in the city of Bujumbura, Burundi in the early 1990s, where he spends idyllic afternoons stealing mangoes and sneaking cigarettes with his band of brothers. Even as he grapples with his parents’ separation, Gaby quietly clings to the hope that his cocooned world will remain intact and unscathed. In 1993, when the winds of political change blow across Burundi and neighbouring Rwanda, life as Gaby knows it begins to unravel. The long-simmering conflict between the African Hutu and Tutsi clans flares up and implodes, and the nations plummet into civil war.
As the spirit of the land begins to shift, so do the people in Gaby’s life. Gaby’s mother, shaken by the cruel impacts of war on her family in Rwanda, begins to deteriorate. His best friend Gino, influenced by new fidelities and warped ideas of nationalism, becomes distant and hostile. But it is during an incident at school, when a fight breaks out between two Burundian boys in the playground, that the new, divided reality becomes crystal clear to Gaby:
That afternoon, for the first time in my life, I entered the dark reality of this country. I was a direct witness to Hutu–Tutsi antagonism, the line that could not be crossed, forcing everyone to belong to one camp or the other. This camp was something you were born with, like a child’s given name, something that followed you for ever. Hutu or Tutsi. It had to be one or the other. Heads or tails. From that day on, I was like a blind person who had regained their sight, as I began to decipher people’s body language and glances, words left unspoken and ways of behaving that had previously passed me by.
War always takes it upon itself, unsolicited, to find us an enemy. I wanted to remain neutral, but I couldn’t. I was born with this story. It ran in my blood. I belonged to it.
As the political rifts of Burundi percolate deeper into his home, his group of friends and his own mind, Gaby slowly surrenders his childhood to the detritus of war, finding respite only in the faraway worlds of books. Encasing the main narrative, we get a glimpse of Gabriel as an adult, living in a town just outside of Paris; but it is a fragmented, confused and jaded voice that we hear, haunted by memories of the past.
First published in French as Petit Pays in 2016, the novel was translated to English by Sarah Ardizzone in 2018, by which time Faye’s debut novel had gathered much acclaim and recognition. Over an e-mail interview, I ask Ardizzone about her experience of translating Small Country. ‘Whereas one of my favourite aspects of my working life is building a relationship with the authors I am privileged to translate, I was conscious of how busy and solicited Gaël was. I didn’t want to be a shrill voice of nuisance, or for our relationship to be solely about me asking nit-picking questions.’ While Faye and Ardizzone exchanged e-mails about crucial questions pertaining to the translation, Ardizzone also took the time to get to know Faye organically, through his writing, and to read other documentations of the war. ‘I did all the research I could, including reading about the atrocities documented in Jean Hatzfeld’s The Survivors in Rwanda Speak and The Killers in Rwanda Speak. (Where in your heart, in your nervous system, do you store this information?)’
One of the things that sets Small Country apart is the unique lens through which we witness a turbulent time in history. As a young and curious observer, Gaby gleans what he can from the people and events around him; but it is with innocence and a tinge of naïveté that he fits the pieces together, navigating his own set of emotions along the way. ‘The child’s perspective is what gives the particularity of this novel – rooted as it is in specific and horrific geopolitics – a universal aspect,’ says Ardizzone. ‘Gabriel is a force of nature who insists on hoping against all odds (that his parents might get back together again, for example). This encourages us, as readers, to rediscover our own childishness, to be seduced by that optimistic perspective, to reserve our better judgement, as we imagine that somehow things might turn out differently.’ Ardizzone also talks about the gaping distance between the child Gaby and the ‘wary, fractured adult’ that we encounter. ‘It is almost as if Gaël is asking us to reconcile the child and the adult we’re reading about, as well as the child and adult within us all.’
Small Country is perhaps one of the most memorable books I’ve read in some time. History and human suffering, freedom and fear, the familiar and the unknown – each two sides of the same experience – these are explored in all their subtleties and vagaries, in a way that is equally heart-warming and heart-rending.
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