***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof*** Copyright © 2018 Gaël Faye
I don’t really know how this story began.
Papa tried explaining it to us one day in the pick-up. ‘In Burundi, you see, it’s like in Rwanda. There are three different ethnic groups. The Hutu form the biggest group, and they’re short with wide noses.’
‘Like Donatien?’ I asked.
‘No, he’s from Zaire, that’s different. Like our cook, Prothé, for instance. There are also the Twa pygmies. But we won’t worry about them, there are so few they don’t really count. And then there are the Tutsi, like your mother. The Tutsi make up a much smaller group than the Hutu, they’re tall and skinny with long noses and you never know what’s going on inside their heads. Take you, Gabriel,’ he said, pointing at me, ‘you’re a proper Tutsi: we can never tell what you’re thinking.’
I had no idea what I was thinking, either. What’s anyone supposed to make of all this? So I asked a question instead:
‘The war between Tutsis and Hutus . . . is it because
they don’t have the same land?’ ‘No, they have the same country.’
‘So . . . they don’t have the same language?’ ‘No, they speak the same language.’
‘So, they don’t have the same God?’ ‘No, they have the same God.’
‘So . . . why are they at war?’
‘Because they don’t have the same nose.’
And that was the end of the discussion. It was all very odd. I’m not sure Papa really understood it, either. From that day on, I started noticing people’s noses in the street, as well as how tall they were. When my little sister Ana and I went shopping in town, we tried to be subtle about guessing who was a Hutu and who was a Tutsi.
‘The guy in white trousers is a Hutu,’ we would whisper, ‘he’s short with a wide nose.’
‘Right, and the one towering over everybody in a hat, he’s extra-skinny with a long nose, so he must be a Tutsi.’
‘See that man over there, in the striped shirt? He’s a Hutu.’
‘No, he’s not – look, he’s tall and skinny.’
‘Yes, but he’s got a wide nose!’
That’s when we began to have our suspicions about ethnic labels. Anyway, Papa didn’t want us talking about it. He thought children should stay out of politics. But we couldn’t help it. The atmosphere was becoming stranger by the day. At school, fights broke out at the slightest provocation, with friends calling each other ‘Hutu’ or ‘Tutsi’ as an insult. When we were all watching Cyrano de Bergerac, one student was even overheard saying: ‘Look at him, with a nose like that he’s got to be Tutsi.’ Something in the air had changed. And you could smell it, no matter what kind of nose you had.
I am haunted by the idea of returning. Not a day goes by without the country calling to me. A secret sound, a scent on the breeze, a certain afternoon light, a gesture, sometimes silence is enough to stir my childhood memories. ‘You won’t find anything there, apart from ghosts and a pile of ruins,’ Ana keeps telling me. She refuses to hear another word about that ‘cursed country’. I listen and I believe her. She’s always been more clear-headed than I. So I put it out of my mind. I decide, once and for all, that I’m never going back. My life is here. In France.
Except that I no longer live anywhere. Living somewhere means a physical merging with its landscape, with every crevice of its environment. There’s none of that here. I’m passing through. I rent. I crash. I squat. My town is a dormitory that serves its purpose. My apartment smells of fresh paint and new linoleum. My neighbours are perfect strangers, we avoid each other politely in the stairwell.
I live and work just outside Paris. In Saint-Quentin-en- Yvelines. RER line C. This new town is like a life without a past. It took me years to feel ‘integrated’. To hold down a stable job, an apartment, hobbies, friendships.
I enjoy connecting with people online. Encounters that last an evening or a few weeks. The girls who date me are all different, each one beautiful in her own way. I feel intoxicated listening to them, inhaling the fragrance of their hair, before surrendering to the warm oblivion of their arms, their legs, their bodies. Not one of them fails to ask me the same loaded question, and it’s always on our first date: ‘So, where are you from?’ A question as mundane as it is predictable. It feels like an obligatory rite-of-passage, before the relationship can develop any further. My skin – the colour of caramel – must explain itself by offering up its pedigree. ‘I’m a human being.’ My answer rankles with them. Not that I’m trying to be provocative. Any more than I want to appear pedantic or philosophical. But when I was just knee- high to a locust, I had already made up my mind never to define myself again.
The evening progresses. My technique is smooth. They talk. They enjoy being listened to. I am drunk. Deep in my cups. Drowning in alcohol, I shrug off sincerity. I become a fearsome hunter. I make them laugh. I seduce them. Just for fun, I return to the question of my roots, deliberately keeping the mystery alive. We play at cat-and-mouse. I inform them, with cold cynicism, that my identity can be weighed in corpses. They don’t react. They try to keep things light. They stare at me with doe-like eyes. I want them. Sometimes, they give themselves up. They take me for a bit of a character. But I can entertain them for only so long.
I am haunted by the idea of returning but I keep put- ting it off, indefinitely. There’s the fear of buried truths, of nightmares left on the threshold of my native land. For twenty years I’ve been going back there – in my dreams at night, as well as in the magical thinking of my days – back to my neighbourhood, to our street where I lived happily with my family and friends. My childhood has left its marks on me, and I don’t know what to do about this. On good days, I tell myself it has contributed to my being strong and sensitive. But when I’m staring at the bottom of a bottle, I blame my childhood for my failure to adapt to the world.
My life is one long meandering. Everything interests me. Nothing ignites my passion. There’s no fire in my belly. I belong to the race of slouchers, of averagely inert citizens. Every now and again I have to pinch myself. I notice the way I behave in company, at work, with my office col- leagues. Is that guy in the lift mirror really me? The young man forcing a laugh by the coffee machine? I don’t recognise him. I have come from so far that I still feel astonished to be here. My colleagues talk about the weather or what’s on TV. I can’t listen to them anymore. I’m having trouble breathing. I loosen my shirt collar. My clothes restrict me. I stare at my polished shoes: they gleam, offering a disappointing reflection. What’s become of my feet? They’re in hiding. I never walk barefoot outdoors any more these days. I wander over to the window. Under the low-hanging sky, and through the grey sticky drizzle, there’s not a single mango tree in the tiny park wedged between the shopping centre and the railway lines.
This particular evening, on leaving work, I run for refuge to the nearest bar, opposite the station. I sit down by the table- football and order a whisky to mark my thirty-third birth- day. I try ringing Ana, but she’s not answering her mobile. I refuse to give up, re-dialling her number several times, until I remember she’s on a business trip in London. I want to talk to her, to tell her about the phone call I received this morning. It’s a sign. I have to return, if only to be clear in my own mind. To bring this obsessive story to an end, once and for all. To close the door behind me. I order another whisky. The noise from the television above the bar temporarily drowns out my thoughts. A 24-hour news channel is broadcasting images of people fleeing war. I witness their makeshift boats washing up on European soil. The children who dis- embark are frozen, starving, dehydrated. Their lives played out on the global football pitch of insanity. Whisky in hand, I watch them from the comfort of the VIP Box. Public opinion holds that they’ve fled hell to find El Dorado. Bullshit! What about the country inside them? – nobody ever mentions that. Poetry may not be news. But it is all that human beings retain from their journey on this earth. I look away from images that capture reality, if not the truth. Perhaps those children will write the truth, one day. I’m as gloomy as a motorway service station in winter. Every birthday it’s the same: this intense melancholy that comes crashing down on me, like a tropical downpour, when I think about Papa, Maman, my friends, and that never-ending party with the crocodile at the bottom of our garden . . .