Review: This Is Not Who We Are by Sophie Buchaillard
On the radio, Suella Braverman was rancidly blethering about sending desperate people seeking sanctuary to Rwanda.
I read one more chapter of Dan Gretton’s I You We Them, his huge study of the ‘desk-killer’ (those bureaucrats who, with the stroke of a pen, condemn others to suffering), then I put it to one side and picked up This Is Not Who We Are.
Synchronicity is unsettling, at times. But here we are.
Iris and Victoria are penpals. Iris lives in Paris, Victoria in Rwanda. Iris’s father works for the French Foreign Office, specialising in the Francophone areas of Africa.
The correspondence ceases when, to the Rwandans, the panga takes on more importance than the pen; when the words inyenzi and interahamwe start to be heard.
When men of God begin to extol hate and murder. In the epistolary-flavoured opening section of the novel we see, through Victoria’s beautifully depicted voice of wonder and fear, how tribal violence happens: gradually, then suddenly. Terrifyingly, sickeningly suddenly.
Victoria’s brother, Benjamin, takes up a machete and becomes one of the killers; a butcher of other children, indeed, and in whose eyes his sister sees, only and chillingly, ‘a certainty older than the both of us’.
This is a powerfully empathetic and sensitive book, which reserves its real rage for the ideological fanatics who deliberately mutate anger at oppression into a specious salvationist enterprise, hate-fuelled, directed at other victims of that same oppression.
Fraternity in suffering is splintered into adversarial tribalism – Victoria’s younger brother, Paul, severs Benjamin’s hand in a refugee camp, after which he and Victoria flee to find their father, Data, from whom they are again taken, this time to the safety of France, by Agnes, in the figure of whom is embodied the possibility of human care and kindness which Buchaillard insists we must never forget.
We return to Iris, re-reading her penpal correspondence: ‘I didn’t know about the misguided deterministic colonial meddling, or about its appropriation by a minority, thirsty for power. All I knew was a name: Victoria’.
Never lose sight of the suffering of the individual (and how many tormented individuals are there, following a massacre in which nearly a million were hacked to death?).
Iris’s father is now dead, perhaps of heartbreak induced by guilt: ‘a sort of trauma brought on by violence he could not stop’, and in which, in fact, from the security of his government office, he was partly complicit. Iris is now in London, and a mother.
A decade has passed since her last contact with Victoria but, in her capacity as journalist, she is coaxed into investigating what might have happened to her penpal. So she returns to Paris, and meets Agnes.
Imperialist divide-and-rule; the West’s indifference; the diffuse racism that relegates African affairs to the ineffable and unknowable; all of this is here. Victoria’s PTSD is encapsulated in the recurring sound-memory of a skull being crushed, which in itself becomes an awful prolepsis.
The one-armed Benjamin tracks his sister down, alienates Paul and becomes, however inadvertently, instrumental in Victoria’s demise; so violence forever pollutes the individual who once embraced it and taints his actions, sullying his life, even after renunciation and rehabilitation.
Once indulged in, violence never leaves its quondam perpetrator; an unshakeable demon, it will cement itself in the psychic cracks which initially beckoned it in (the notion of demonic possession is a leitmotif).
This is a fine novel. The Author’s Note clarifies the autobiographical elements of it, and does not shy from apportioning blame (nor should it).
There is cautious hope, alongside a demand to acknowledge that the world’s wounds caused by such events as the Rwandan slaughter will need a lot of work to heal.
‘Language failed Rwanda’, we are told; yes, it did, but it can also be used to mend. The panga was designed as an agricultural implement; it was initially used to grow food.
This Is Not Who We Are by Sophie Buchaillard is published by Seren. It is available from all good bookshops or you can buy a copy here.
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