[Europa Editions; 2022]
Tr. from the French by Alison Anderson
In my interview with Dennis Cooper about his novel, I Wished, he states, “In Europe, one has the sense that fiction writers are allowed, even encouraged to use whatever approach and style and formal interventions they feel are necessary to write a potentially great story or novel.” Reading Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse’s first novel, All Your Children, Scattered, is a testament to this far more open-minded approach to fiction. The novel weaves back and forth in time and is told from multiple points of view as well as an epistolary form. The author is a Rwandan who lives in France and writes in French. Set during, before, and after the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when in approximately one hundred days half a million Rwandans murdered each other, Mairesse tells the story of a family. But the novel is, without a doubt, about the matriarch, Immaculata, who survives the genocide by hiding in a basement alone.
Formally speaking, the novel is told from the points of view of Immaculata, born a Tutsi; her daughter Blanche, who, biographically speaking, most closely resembles the author; and her grandson, named Stokely, after the activist and founder of the Black nationalist movement in the United States. Mairesse uses the second person, the “you,” not as an inversion of “I,” but, in my personally much preferred manner, as a way of addressing another. During the chapters narrated by Blanche and Stokely, they address Immaculata, and she in turn, addresses them. In this way, the novel resembles a conversation, one she has with her daughter, fraught with mother-daughter issues, and her grandson, a less troubled relationship.
All novels are mystery novels in that the reader wants to know—where is this going? In the beginning of this tale, we know that Blanche moves to France right before the genocide and that her father was a white Frenchman who she does not know. We know that her brother, Bosco, whose father was a Hutu whom he does not know, joins the army to fight on the “good” side of the Tutsis. And we know that after the war, Immaculata becomes mute, while Bosco is irreparably ruined from the horror of endless murder.
But how and why? Why does Immaculata have two children with two different men? Why does her daughter get to escape, and why does Bosco, at seventeen, without telling his mother, join the army? The answers to all these questions and more are the story, whose details are numerous and revelatory and winding. Underneath the narrative of three broken generations simmers the horrific damage of colonialism, both by the French and Belgian people, by racism, and lastly, and perhaps most confusingly, by fatherlessness. How to narrate absence? How can the lack of something be told? My answer to my own question would be to listen to the women, in particular, the older women.
The first chapter has an arc that sums up nicely a trajectory of blame, shame, and forgiveness that permeates many a family. Blanche says to her mother, unkindly, “. . . how can it be you didn’t know anything about the extermination that was coming?” A few lines later, she writes, “Today, as I write these lines, I regret it bitterly.” Later in the novel, Immaculata reminisces when Blanche “began to understand that my childhood had been vastly different from her own.” And when Stokely is born in the safety of France, Blanche realizes, “Raising our own children makes us view our own parents’ erratic work with greater understanding.” This statement is the truth and heart of the novel, and of the many of us women who are given the gift to live long enough to gain the wisdom of this all-important perspective.
The richly told story of the childhood of Immaculata, from when her mother first sees a white man and thinks, “they’ been skinned alive,” to her relationship with Blanche’s French father and Bosco’s Hutu father, is told with gaps, which are later filled with unreliable and differing narrations. Moving back and forth through history, with the Rwandan language Kinyarwanda faithfully interspersed throughout, the novel describes the beauty of Rwanda, the food, the homes, the air, the cities, the countryside, and the people. The last chapter is entitled “The Jacarandas,” referring to the trees that that once watched over the house Blanche grew up in and where her mother still lives. At the end of the novel, the trees are gone now, the “political trees” that were brought by the colonizers from South America. Blanche refuses to replace them. It is fitting to end a novel with the end of something that never belonged in Rwanda in the first place. There is nothing heart-warming about this gesture, no reclaiming, for instance. It is, simply, the end of something.
But what happens to Bosco, after the horrors of the war? What does Stokely do when he grows up? He is given the beautiful distance that a generation removed can generate less emotional complication, more pure curiosity. The absence of blame and anger. In a chapter that discusses Blanche’s move to France and her challenges raising her son in a country where she was not born, she asks, “Why do we still say ‘mother tongue?’” The next chapter offers a reply with a line said by Immaculata, “Children keep you alive.”
So do stories.
The heart of the novel is the need to understand how incredibly different and usually far more difficult, our mother’s, and grandmother’s, lives were. What is understanding? We cannot know, but we can imagine. We can listen. In the case of Mairesse, she goes even further by writing a gorgeous novel-as-altar to her mother and, secondly, her home country. The author gives voice to the mute matriarch, something we can all aspire to. She also gives us a deeply personal history of a ravaged family, a country destroyed by its colonial history, and most disturbingly, its own people. Redemptive would be a disrespectful word to describe this masterful work because it’s a beautifully structured and absolutely important narrative that illuminates the human animal’s condition at its most extreme dichotomy. Ultimately, All Your Children, Scattered shows us that hope and beauty can be deceptive, but are necessary and complicated things, even during the nearly unfathomable reality of genocide.
Paula Bomer is the author of the novels, Tante Eva and Nine Months, and the story collections, Baby and Inside Madeleine. She is also the author of the essay collection, Mystery and Mortality. A new essay collection is forthcoming from Publishing Genius in 2023, and she is at work on a new novel. Bomer has lived in Brooklyn for over thirty years.
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