Small Country

A Novel
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Already an international sensation and prize-winning bestseller in France, an evocative coming-of-age story of a young boy, a lost childhood and a shattered homeland.
 
SHORTLISTED FOR THE ALBERTINE PRIZE • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY ESQUIRE • LONGLISTED FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR EXCELLENCE IN FICTION • LONGLISTED FOR THE ASPEN WORDS LITERARY PRIZE  

Burundi, 1992. For ten-year-old Gabriel, life in his comfortable expatriate neighborhood of Bujumbura with his French father, Rwandan mother and little sister Ana, is something close to paradise.
 
These are carefree days of laughter and adventure – sneaking Supermatch cigarettes and gorging on stolen mangoes – as he and his mischievous gang of friends transform their tiny cul-de-sac into their kingdom.
 
But dark clouds are gathering over this small country, and soon their peaceful existence will shatter when Burundi, and neighboring Rwanda, are brutally hit by civil war and genocide.  

A novel of extraordinary power and beauty, Small Country describes an end of innocence as seen through the eyes of a child caught in the maelstrom of history. Shot through with shadows and light, tragedy and humor, it is a stirring tribute not only to a dark chapter in Africa’s past, but also to the bright days that preceded it.

Praise

*TIME Magazine Best Summer Books 2018*

Unforgettable… Gaël Faye’s talent is breathtaking; no country that can give the world a writer like him should be ever be called small.” —Imbolo Mbue, author of Behold the Dreamers
 
An evocative portrait of what it means to lose one’s freedom and innocence… He is a writer of great promise and grace.” —Chigozie Obioma, author of The Fishermen

"Luminous... This is a book that demanded to be written, not only to mark the lives lost in Burundi and Rwanda, but also to show the way in which violence can take hold of a nation. With a light touch, Faye dramatises the terrible nostalgia of having lost not only a childhood but also a whole world to war." —Nadifa Mohamed, Guardian (UK)

"A huge hit in France...Mr Faye [writes] with a rare and subtle yearning about his youthful escapades in Burundi. Small Country is about a boy who loses his innocence despite desperately wanting to cling to it.' —New York Times 
 
Personal and intimate… Gaël Faye has evoked the darkest pages of contemporary Africa without tipping into pathos.” —Alain Mabanckou, author of Broken Glass

"Vividly translated by Ardizzone, this powerful tale, a best-seller overseas, presents a world where there are no easy demarcations of good and evil, sane and insane, or pure and corrupted, as Faye focuses not on offering judgement but rather on capturing the full impact of social and political disintegration." —Booklist, Starred Review

“Faye debuts a precise and potent voice in his deeply affecting novel about coming of age during the mid-1990s Tutsi genocide... The juxtaposition of everyday growing pains and the fallout from atrocities is heightened by Faye’s lovely prose, which builds a heartrending portrait of the end of childhood.”  —Publishers Weekly

“The death of innocence seen through the eyes of Gabriel, our beguiling 11-year-old narrator, is at the heart of this gorgeous first novel… Faye eloquently speaks to the untenable choices, among love of country, family, or survival, that victims in conflict zones are forced to make." —Library Journal

“Gaël Faye is a revelation. Small Country is a luminous and poignant novel about childhood, war, exile and identitythis is literature at its most powerful.” – Le Parisien Magazine
    
“This beautiful coming-of-age novel expresses a harrowing yearning for kindness and harmony. The result is a vision of the world – not political, but poetic – that attempts a balancing act between both horror and wonder." —Le Figaro

"In the summer months, there are two categories of books: those we take on holiday and leave behind in the sand, and those that make their mark on us for lifeSmall Country by Gaël Faye is firmly part of the latter category" —Le Matin Dimanche

"Magnificent” —Le Parisien

Excerpt

***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 . . .

Q & A

Q. What inspired Small Country? Where did the idea for the story originate?
 
A. My inspiration came from a frustration: I wrote a song called “L’ennui des après-midi sans fin” (“boredom of the endless afternoon”) in my first album, Pili Pili sur un croissant au beurre, which was about those days before the civil war in Burundi when life was banal and ordinary. The song was too short a format to express all I wanted to say, so I decided to write this story of childhood in a small country of central Africa.
 
 
Q. As Gaby’s world begins to fracture, fault lines appearing among his family and his friends, he anchors himself in part by writing letters to his French pen pal, Laure, on whom he projects a great deal of hope. His tender letters brim with dreams for the future, for instance: “When I grow up I want to be a mechanic, so nothing ever stays broken in my life.” You write beautifully and convincingly from Gaby’s perspective. How did you access his young voice and render his wisdom so powerfully?
 
A. Gabriel lives on the border of different worlds: between Africans and Europeans, black and white skins, Hutu and Tutsi, childhood and adulthood, urban and rural, domestic life and street experiences, peace and war. . . . And this instability generated a unique perspective on the world around him. I created the system of letters so my readers could hear Gabriel’s voice. He is an interior child with a poetic view on life, and to find a convincingly childlike voice, I tried to find a balance between philosophical thoughts and inexperience, and between credulity and the naïveté of childhood.
 
Q. The novel opens in Burundi in 1992, with young Gaby’s father explaining the socio-political strife surrounding their family’s peaceful oasis. Gaby will soon find his innocence irreversibly punctured, first by his parents’ separation and then by the brutal civil war and genocide his father had attempted to explain. Can you let us know a bit more about the political and historical context behind the novel?
 
A. The first democratic election took place in Burundi in 1993 with the election of Melchior Ndadaye. Only three months after the election, Ndadaye was killed by the army during a military coup, and a civil war ensued. The ethnic conflict between Hutu and Tutsi was responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives during the ten years of the civil war (1993–2003). The concept of ethnicities in Burundi and Rwanda is a colonial creation based on physical differences and nineteenth-century racist theories of inequality of men and races. And those theories led to the war in Burundi and to the genocide against Tutsi in Rwanda.
 
Q. You enjoy a very successful career as a hip-hop artist in France and recently won a Victoires de la Musique (the French equivalent of a Grammy). Can you discuss your creative impulse in general? How does your approach to music differ from your approach to fiction? How do you gauge your audience’s response, which seems to be externalized with music and yet so interior with fiction?
 
A. I started to write poetry when I was thirteen during the civil war in Burundi. A few years later, I transformed my poems into songs. Poetry is my first passion. I’m interested in the sound of the words and the pace of the language. Creating a song is more to build sound and rhythm, while fiction introduces the challenge of building a world from scratch. It seems like two different methods, but for me it ends up as the same impulse.


 
Q. What are you working on now?
 
A. I’m working on different projects: cinema screenplays, a new album record between France and Rwanda, and a novel about a famous rock star!
 
 
Q. What do you hope your readers will take away from Small Country?
 
A. Small Country is a sensitive exploration of the life of a human being who has had to run away from his land, his family, and his friends. . . . Every day in our world, we hear the terms “migrants” and “refugees,” but we forget that behind these words, there are names, dreams, and voices. This novel is a long poem about one of those kids, from a distant conflict, who finds his own words to tell his name and his story. And I hope also that the readers can discover Burundi because this is one of the first novels to talk about this small and relatively unknown country.

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