This is my review of Notre-dame Du Nil by Scholastique Mukasonga.
The statue of the Virgin at the source of the Nile gives its name to the Catholic boarding school for the daughters of the Rwandan élite, located in the remote highlands to isolate them from any temptation which might jeopardise their destined role as good wives and mothers. Having said this, the spineless Mother Superior and creepy sidekick Père Herménégild??é take the easy course of turning a blind eye to a number of dubious activities.
At first, the novel seems like an African take on Enid Blyton’s “Mallory Towers”. As the girls return at the start of a new term, we see a dust-covered Immaculée cadging a lift in her friend Gorettis’s chauffeur-driven car, having thought it best not to ride pillion on her boyfriend’s motorbike right up to the school gate. Frida, daughter of a flashily-dressed ambassador causes a stir with her brutally straightened hair, and full-skirted red dress to match the colour of a long, two-seater convertible in which she lounges, as if in bed. A primitive tribal culture lies uneasily just below the surface trappings of western-style materialism.
The presiding force is Gloriosa, secretly nicknamed “the Mastodon”, the domineering daughter of an important Hutu government minister, brimming with resentment over the enforced quota of Tutsi girls which prevents “the real Rwandis, the majority people, the hoe-carriers” from obtaining their rightful secondary school places.
After losing some thirty-seven members of her family in the appalling Rwandan genocide of 1994, author Scholastique Mukasonga could be forgiven for either rejecting any attempt to write about it, or for creating a novel of unbearable cruelty and violence. Instead, she has chosen to make satirical humour an integral part of her book, telling an interviewer that irony is a fundamental characteristic of her Tutsi culture, even in adversity. Her aim is to act as a “memory bearer”, to help readers understand what happened, as a way of mourning and a “homage to the dispossessed”. In this respect, humour creates a certain distance from the raw horror without belittling the suffering.
Despite the tongue-in-cheek tone, there are hints of menace from the outset. The photographs of the famous inauguration of the Virgin’s statue have been hidden away, the features of most of the dignitaries struck out with red ink – because they were Tutsis. Tension builds towards a final grim climax, as Gloriosa hatches a ludicrous plan to replace the statue’s Tutsi nose with a Hutu one. This reflects the white colonialist’s ill-judged role in emphasising the beauty and past nobility of the Tutsi minority, to the irritation of the majority of more stockily-built agricultural Hutus.
Dialogues often seem unnatural and the storyline to meander in a series of unconnected incidents, some banal, such as the stir caused by a hippy white male teacher’s long flowing hair, others bizarre such as the eccentric coffee planter M. de Fontenaille’s obsession with making Veronique and her friend Virginia, the bright girl from a rural Tutsi background, into reincarnations of former Tutsi queens. There is also a touch of “magic realism” in say, Virginia’s dealings with the sorcerer from whom she seeks advice on how to propitiate the queen whose spirit she is disturbing by assuming her identity.
Although this book “speaks for itself” if one reads between the lines, I would have found a postscript to explain the political and social background useful. I would also have liked a glossary of the Kinyarwandan words used, since the meaning is not always sufficiently clear in context, and I struggled to find definitions on line. Yet despite reservations over the story’s style and structure, the author’s first-hand knowledge and understanding of her culture and the events which led to the crisis give the novel a kind of authenticity and sobering food for thought which cannot be gainsaid.