Making Dead Bones Dance
Murambi, The Book of Bones
by Boubacar Boris Diop
translated from French by Fiona Mc Laughlin
Indiana University Press, 2006
A novel written in four parts, Murambi, The Book of Bones traces the return of a Rwandan history teacher, Cornelius Uvimana, to his motherland sometime after the 1994 genocide. At the time of the genocide, Cornelius had been living and working in Djibouti. Thus, except for one uncle, he is the only one of his close family to have survived. Yet the very distance that saves him is what stops him from knowing more than a few murky details of what happened to his family, his land and its people in those terrible days. His knowledge of those events is characterized by uncertainty and fragmentation. Parts one and three are collections of bits and pieces of stories portraying this: each part contains narratives of a multitude of voices who are involved in the genocide in one way or another. As a framing device, parts two and four trace Cornelius’ own narrative of return and discovery. During his travels around the scarred landscape of Rwanda, visiting old friends and seeing genocide memorials, it is his trip to Murambi, his hometown, that proves to be the most painful and most revealing experience. Murambi is not only the village where he grew up—the place where he left his family—but it is also the site of one of the most gruesome mass murders of the genocide. As Jessica, his old childhood friend explains to him, between fifty and sixty thousand people were slaughtered over the course of a few days while sheltering in the Murambi Polytechnic School.
The facts are staggering: “Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days.” But even this fact is uncertain—some statistics say 800,000, others say one million. Some say 90 days, others say one hundred. Nevertheless, the numbers are so horrific they seem unreal. Another fact: “Most of the dead were Tutsis—and most of those who perpetrated the violence were Hutus.” And another one: “The genocide was sparked by the death of the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down above Kigali airport on 6 April 1994.”1 The story is remarkably simple, and yet simultaneously nebulous. What story is more common than death? But at the same time, what could be more complicated to explain than the details, the justification, the causes? And, what is more complex than the aftermath, the brokenness that is left behind? How do we explain this? How are we to understand it all?
These questions and similar ones led me to Murambi. After being directed to the book by a colleague doing research on the Rwandan genocide, I took out a copy and started reading. The kaleidoscope of perspectives offered by the various narratives in parts one and three gripped me immediately. Here, victims, perpetrators, soldiers and activists speak—they plead, reflect, despair and some dare to hope before, during and after the genocide. Here, labels fall away to reveal ordinary people stuck in heart wrenching, humanity-defying times. The brevity of the narratives in these parts also ensured that I kept turning the pages, furiously reading, skimming, searching for the reappearance of these voices. Somehow, I needed to know that the end of each story was not at the same time their end. The pleas for attention from the dead are, after all, often far more powerful and commanding than the pleas of the living. Yet, for the most part, these characters only appear once, and then disappear—it seems that not even literary fiction can hold the voices of the vanished. And the lucid simplicity of Diop’s writing makes the events of the past accessible, maybe too accessible, which makes it difficult to be casually disregarded.
Listen to these words from the first character to appear in Murambi, one Michel Serumundo, on the day that President Habyarimana’s plane went down. Just before he steps out into the night to find his missing son, Michel attempts to reassure his wife about the sudden presence of soldiers and barricades on the streets. Yet, even as he tells her that “the entire world is watching... [the Hutus] won’t be able to do anything,” he himself is not convinced:
In my heart of hearts I knew I was wrong. The World Cup was about to begin in the United States. The planet was interested in nothing else. And in any case, whatever happened in Rwanda, it would always be the same old story of blacks beating up on each other. Even Africans would say, during half-time of every match, “They’re embarrassing us, they should stop killing each other like that.” Then they’ll go on to something else. “Did you see that acrobatic flip of Kluivert’s?” What I’m saying is not a reproach. I’ve seen lots of scenes on television myself that were hard to take. Guys in slips and masks pulling bodies out of a mass grave. Newborns they toss, laughing, into bread ovens. Young women who coat their throats with oil before going to bed. “That way,” they say, “when the throat-slitters come, the blades of their knives won’t hurt as much.” I suffered from these things without really feeling involved. I didn’t realize that if the victims shouted loud enough, it was so I would hear them, myself and thousands of other people on earth, and so we would try to do everything we could so that their suffering might end. It always happened so far away, in countries on the other side of the world. But in these early days of April in 1994, the other country on the other side of the world is mine.
I, like Michel, am also guilty of ignoring the rest of the world. I also too frequently turn away as quickly as I can from such “scenes on television.” Murambi, therefore, represents an entry into a world I rarely think of in my relatively First World existence in South Africa—where I do not really need to struggle for money and comfort. Murambi speaks of a world unfamiliar to me—a world where friends and neighbors were suddenly no longer trustworthy, where family members disappeared without warning, where anarchy and death ruled in nauseating horror, where depravity quite often wore shockingly familiar and beloved faces. It also speaks of individuals who, quite suddenly, become fully aware of how truly meaningless they are to the rest of the world, and of a world which carries on unperturbed by the events taking place in a distant, economically poor country.
But it does more than provide a different perspective and an entry into other worlds. Based on an event that makes us question good and evil, humanity and inhumanity, death and life, suffering and survival, complicity and denial, Murambi provides a human narrative background to questions that have long concerned writers, poets, artists: How relevant is art? What is its function? What does art do that facts, historical accounts, or journalistic articles can not? One need only Google the words “literature quotes” or “art quotes,” and multiple pages of search results will show a preoccupation with understanding and explaining the creative arts. Pablo Picasso once said that “Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.” Murambi illuminates these truths. In an introduction to the English translation of Murambi, Fiona Mc Laughlin, the translator, describes how the book was the product of a journey taken by Diop with nine other prominent African writers. The group was invited to visit post-genocide Rwanda in 1998 in order to “bear collective witness to one of the most horrifying tragedies of the twentieth century.” Mc Laughlin suggests that one of the functions of art, and consequently one of the responsibilities of the artist, is an engagement with such events in order to bear testimony.2
But can anything bear testimony to such traumatic events? Is it not better to let sleeping dogs lie, or do we dare wake them? More importantly, are words strong enough to carry the burden of translating inhumane actions? This last question, in particular, seems to plague Diop in his own retelling of the genocide, creating the character of Cornelius as someone not only looking for answers, but also as someone who himself, an aspiring playwight, is involved in the creative arts. Yet, the voices of the other characters question his intention. Cornelius’ childhood friend Jessica realizes at the end of one of her short chapters that “even words aren’t enough. Even words don’t know any more what to say.” Another survivor, Gerard Nayinzira, tells Cornelius of his escape: “And all the beautiful words of the poets, Cornelius, can say nothing, I swear to you, of the fifty thousand ways to die like a dog, within a few hours.” It is only after a visit to Murambi Polytechnic, however, where the bodies of several thousand Tutsis and Hutus have been preserved in situ in lime as a reminder of the genocide, that Cornelius starts to understand the necessity of using his words: not to write means to “resign… to the definitive victory of the murderers through silence.” Instead, he resolves to “tirelessly recount the horror. With machete words, club words, words studded with nails, naked words, and... words covered with blood and shit.” After all, “the dead of Murambi, too, had dreams, and... their most ardent desire was for the resurrection of the living.”
This is why we do not and should not leave the past alone. And, this is why we wake sleeping dogs. We dig up the bones of those who have died ignobly and give them a chance to breathe again, to dance, so that we too, the living, will be resurrected. In the case of Murambi and Rwanda, it is even simpler—many bones and corpses already lie uncovered on display at various sites around the country as a permanent reminder that they too once lived. One might argue that there is not much excavation work to be done here, as the facts are already known. But what Murambi does, what art does, is to take these bones and make them dance, transforming the horrific, tragic, and the overlooked into something beautiful and eternally alive, something that cannot be ignored—ever. These bones must dance—otherwise, it is all too easy for us who have survived to turn away once more. They must transfix us with their Tötentanz so that we are led, not into destruction, but into the conviction that they once moved with the breath of the living.
We understand “me” or “me and you.” And it is in this space in between “me and you” that literature works. For in literature, I am someone else’s “me.” 800,000 people become someone, us, when we read of Cornelius’ sight of a female corpse lying on a tabletop, impaled with a stake through her vagina. Inside, we cry when Jessica casually mentions the victim’s name to a Cornelius who will never understand what this name means. We realize this corpse is what has become of her best friend mentioned a few chapters previously. As Cornelius comes closer to uncovering the mystery surrounding his family’s death, we breathe in the air of a dusty rural Rwanda. We feel the crawl of tension on Michel’s skin as a soldier’s gaze rakes his face for signs of belonging, for reasons yet to be revealed. We smell the fear, as we wait for the soldiers to storm our hiding place. It is no longer they that this happens to, but us. It is through art that we become the other. Shakespeare wrote once: “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” It is through literature that we bleed and become brothers of all men.
2. Murambi’s nomination to the Zimbabwe International Book Fair’s list of Africa’s 100 Best Books of the 20th century shows the extent of its political and social impact.
October 12, 2009