The film Titanic feels fundamentally broken to me. Here is a love story, not especially compelling but competent enough. Now, crashing into it and holing it below the waterline, comes a disaster in which hundreds will die, terrifyingly realised. The love story continues as nothing more than a distraction: too melodramatic to bring the catastrophe closer, not engaging enough to take centre stage.
Set in a girls’ school in Rwanda circa 1980, Our Lady of the Nile is building to disaster, too—the disaster within the novel, when Hutu-Tutsi tension spills over into violence, and the greater disaster it prefigures. Against this, the everyday concerns and midnight feasts of its schoolgirls could seem unimportant too. Instead, they underline the horror and the tragedy. A genocide is no more abstract than an iceberg: it is the bringing to an end of hundreds of thousands of lives that should have had the chance to be ordinary; the sweeping away of the everyday concerns that everybody who lives should be allowed to have. James Cameron tries to make his love story great enough to be equal to the catastrophe. Scholastique Mukasonga insists that the story of every life is greater than catastrophe, and that this is where the horror of the catastrophe comes from.
The genocide in Rwanda began a fortnight before my sixth birthday. Of course I could not comprehend it, if anyone can. I saw it on the news and so far as I remember nobody tried to explain it to me, nor do I know how they could have. It sat with me, becoming a sort of symbol for all of the frightening things I saw on the TV but didn’t really understand, until I was old enough to feel that I ought to understand it already and it would be embarrassing to admit that I didn’t. More than any subsequent attempt to quietly educate myself, and without depicting it directly, Mukasonga’s novel shunted the genocide out of the realm of childhood terror and into reality. Perhaps this is not so acutely necessary for most people as it was for me, but it strikes me as one of the most important things that writing on genocide can do: help us begin to understand what seems incomprehensible.
Recently, I have seen more mention of the genocide in Rwanda than usual. Sometimes it is referred to in synecdoche, just as ‘Rwanda’, as though there are not and have never been any ordinary lives or everyday concerns there. Usually it is being used to minimize the atrocities now being inflicted upon Palestine, as though hundreds of thousands killed in one place reduce the horror of tens of thousands killed in another. As though a child orphaned or maimed or killed a fortnight before his sixth birthday should reflect that it could be worse. I do not think that this has helped anyone to comprehend the incomprehensible. I do not think the people saying such things want it to be comprehended.
It has felt difficult to write about books for the last few months. Frivolous. I am not someone who generally feels that all life must stop when something awful is happening (there is, after all, always something awful happening somewhere). But when the horror is vast and your government is complicit in it, it feels wrong to write about the latest little stories you have enjoyed. Like I am using the fire engulfing other peoples’ homes to illuminate the pages.
But thinking about Our Lady of the Nile reminds me that literature is much of how I understand the world, and much of what makes life seem precious to me. If I am horrified by killing it is because it steals such precious things from its victims; because I want the dead to be able to read stories or write poems or dance or draw or do whatever else made life precious to them. It sometimes feels like we ought to turn away from our own lives and joys to look at other people’s suffering, but I don’t think that can be how it works. I think we must look at both at the same time if we are to understand either.
On Christmas Day, a man who escaped the genocide in Rwanda while I, four years older, watched it uncomprehendingly on TV, took up the lead role in Doctor Who. He is a joy to watch, and the children who watch him will hopefully see stories that help them understand their terrors, and that the story of every life is greater than catastrophe. Because stories and beauty and art and midnight feasts always matter. And they do not matter less in the face of horrors: they matter more.
I have not attempted to watch Titanic for many years. It is a few months since I read Our Lady of the Nile, in a library copy long since returned. My recollection of both may be faulty.
I have not sought a way to award this book zero stars, because although there are a great many things I feel ought to survive the horrors of the world, the urge to glibly undercut my thoughts and feelings is not among them.