Translated from the French by Jordan Stump
(Archipelago Books, 2020)
Over the last decade and a half, Scholastique Mukasonga has resurrected an entire lost culture. Though she was nearly 50 when her first book appeared, and writing in French, her third or fourth language—depending how you count the indigenous tongues of Rwanda—her output amounts to a small but essential library memorializing the Tutsi. Back in their homeland, of course, this ethnic group lost upwards of a million during the genocide of the early ’90s, and for decades beforehand the local Hutu majority had perpetrated repression of all kinds, including pogroms. Most of Mukasonga’s family lasted till ’94, when her parents were massacred, but they’d first had to flee in 1960. As a child, the author spent years in a hardscrabble camp much like the setting of this new book’s title story, its opener.
The other four tales of Igifu sketch the woman’s odyssey thereafter, from hanging on in Burundi to finding asylum in France. There’s mention of academic success and “notebooks with … little stories of my own invention.” What most consumes these narratives, however, is the look back over “all the ancestors, all the bloodlines,” and the immemorial rituals of the cow herd and erythrina tree. Brief as the text is, it conveys overwhelming loss. The final piece has a title that pulls no punches, “Grief,” and it takes one unnamed survivor, now an orphaned middle-aged expat, back to the gutted family home. The places of her heart have “become a labyrinth of her despair, with no way out”—except of course via what we’re reading.
That is, Mukasonga keeps the work at arm’s length from autobiography. There are dream passages, comic exaggerations, and decade-skipping chronological leaps. Then too, in a recent online event for Community Bookstore with Martha Cooley, the author made a point of calling Igifu fiction. Myself, I’d characterize it as a novel in stories. All that said, there’s no denying the points of contact between the text and the author’s experience. The final story revisits the scorched earth of the Tutsi homeland, years after the worst, and the unnamed returnee, a professor in France with memories of a sanctuary in Burundi, can’t help but recall Mukasonga herself, who only summoned the fortitude to go back in 2004—and then within two years produced her first book.
That debut she termed non-fiction, a memoir, and in 2016 it appeared in the US as Cockroaches, a common slur for the Tutsi back home. Among her half-dozen books since (four of them on Brooklyn’s superb Archipelago Books), the most celebrated is a 2012 novel, a prize-winner in Europe, in English Our Lady of the Nile (2014). The title refers to a Rwandan Catholic girls’ school, one with a quota for non-Hutus, where Christian impulses get crushed under racist power-plays. As a whole, though Mukasonga also has a novel about musicians in the Antilles, her late-blooming career seems a summoning of spirits, calling back the loved ones and places of the heart that she was forced to abandon.
A noble purpose, rooted in a historic tragedy, yet the hours I spent with Igifu never felt like settling scores, toting up good guys versus bad. From the first, I was ushered to dazzling new outlooks on the world, some tinged with wit, some with terror. My eyes were opened first by a starving girl in a camp for the displaced. There, “Igifu” is the unrelenting hunger, “given us at birth like a cruel guardian angel,” and one evening it almost carries her off:
I felt myself being sucked into that abyss […] lights began to shine. They seemed to be calling me from the end of a long, dark hallway, but no, it wasn’t a hallway, it was like a tornado dragging me toward those lights, and they grew brighter and brighter and there were more and more of them, sparkling … beautiful, and they didn’t hurt your eyes, no, no … they were cool, they were soothing …
A long moment near death has enriched many fictions, to be sure, but it’s a rare one that recalls Katherine Anne Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider. Mukasonga, better yet, closes her story with a stinging change of affect, by linking up the otherworldly sojourn of her unnamed child with that of her tormented people: “And I think of those who fell to the machetes: was there a light waiting for them at the end of their torments? And then the memory of the light begins to hurt.”
In other words, this is an author who goes well beyond recollection; she’s alert to the signals of other people’s nerve-endings. A man’s mindset takes over the second story, a bittersweet celebration of cow-herding that reaches back to Tutsi origin stories, while also stirring in colonial culture, intriguingly: “a prayer … mingled praise for the cow with praise for the Virgin Mary.” Another narrative works in first-person plural, primarily, yet also delivers insights in third: “their concern for elegance was an act of defiance against the killers ….” The shifting perspectives contribute to the piece’s success as something other than narrative, rather a meditation, chilling but hard to set down.
As for storytelling in the classic sense, see “The Curse of Beauty.” In some ways my favorite, the tale proves a spritely thing despite the subject, the trials of a Tutsi woman “beyond question the most beautiful of them all.” Here Mukasonga comes across a bit like García Márquez, with a quasi-surreal exaggeration that allows her to make hay, wittily, with both male privilege and her heroine’s counter-strategies. I won’t soon forget the nickname given a powerful man’s lower-caste mistress: his “second office.” Not that “Curse” works free of the gloom that pervades the text as a whole. Indeed, struggling to choose the best of the lot, I could just as well hold up the heartsore closer or the nightmare opener. The ruins from which this author escaped cast a shadow over everything to which she turns her hand—but to shape those shadows demands a terrific dexterity, and an imagination to match. Both of those, happily, are also part of Mukasonga’s inheritance.