Petit Pays by Gaël Faye

Once I got into the rhythm of this, which is to say, reading in French, and getting past the need to look up too many new words, I couldn’t put this down, by the time I found my reading rhythm, the lives of Gabriel (Gaby) and his sister Ana, his parents, his friends had their claws in me and I had to know what was going to happen next.

I heard about this book initially via a French friend who retired here, but spent most of her married life living in a number of African countries. She introduced the book to me, as having been written by the son of friends. I was intrigued, it wasn’t too long – and then it began to win a lot of prizes! I suspected it might get translated, but decided not to wait.

Gaël Faye, like the protagonist of the book, is the son of a French father and Rwandan mother and the historical facts which run alongside this narrative coincide with what he would have experienced, born in Bujumbura in Burundi and similarly fleeing the country to live in exile when civil war broke out in 1993 at the same time as the genocide in Rwanda against the Tutsi in 1994.

The book starts with Gaby reflecting on a conversation with his father, a turning point in his understanding of the ethnic origin of his people, of the difference between the Hutu, and the Tutsi. He is trying to understand the motivation for the ethnic violence that caused his mother to flee her country of origin.

His father is French, his mother Tutsi from Rwanda, they live in the small country bordering Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, called Burundi. It boasts the second deepest lake in the world, Lake Tanganyika, which occupies a large portion of the country’s border and is part of the African Great Lakes region.

An italicised chapter depicts Gaby in France on his 33rd birthday, unable to reach his sister Ana, falling into what has become an annual day of melancholy, he remembers his exceptional 11th birthday, his parents and friends. And thus begins the novel, back to Burundi when he is 10 years old, remembering those last days of his parents marriage, replaying scenes that may have contributed to the demise of their relationship and many that contribute to his homesickness today.

Conversations highlight the cultural differences between his parents, disputes provoke them to raise age-old issues, two people, neither of whom are really at home where they are, whose references come from elsewhere, who yearn for different things, Yvonne dreams of Paris, Michel is content with his piece of paradise in Burundi; his business, their beautiful home, domestic servants, the climate, the lake, the mountains, he refers to her dream of Paris and Europe as if it is a fantasy, far from the paradise she imagines.

For Gaby and Ana, Bujumbura is home, it is where they belong. Each day unfolds according to the same routine, as the domestics arrive, the gate is opened, they prepare for school, are driven, there is a change as Gaby begins college and new friendships develop. His close friends live in the same alleyway, the twins, Gino, Armand.  And Francis who they conflict with. They like to hang out in an abandoned Combi, talking, laughing, planning things.

On connaissait tous les recoins de l’impasse et on voulait y rester pour la vie entière, tous les cinq, ensemble.

(We know all the nooks of the alley and we would like to stay there the rest of our lives, all five of us, together.)

J’ai beau chercher, je ne me souviens pas du moment ou l’on s’est mis à penser différemment. A considérer que, dorévenant il y aurait nous d’un côté et, de l’autre, des ennemis, comme Francis.

(I looked hard, I don’t remember the moment when we began to think differently. To consider that, from now on, there would be us on one side and on the other, enemies, like Francis.)

Slowly unsettling news penetrates their utopia, Yvonne is worried for her Aunt and four children who never left Rwanda and for her nephew Pacifique who decides to return there to fight. They begin to listen more often to the radio for news, adults start making confidential telephone calls behind closed doors.

Despite the unsettled times, they plan a visit to Rwanda for a family marriage, excitement and tension mount and while they make the event, the changing atmosphere forces them to return in haste.

The book continues to follow the daily life revolving around Gaby, the highs of the adventures with his friends, despite the unease that pervades their township, the lows of news from Rwanda and a fear that the divisions that have become violent will trickle across to Burundi.

The news of a coup d’etat arrives when the radio plays classic music nonstop, it is a sign, one that has happened before, in November 1966 it was a Schubert piano sonata, in 1987 Chopin. Now, it’s Wagner they hear.

Ce jour-là, le 21 October 1993, nous avons eu droit au Crépsucule des dieux de Wagner.

Attitudes change and begin to take effect in the playground and in the neighbourhood. Gaby befriends an elderly neighbour, a widow with large bookshelves, he seeks respite between the pages of a newfound love, literature.

The story is told through scenes viewed from the perspective of Gaby, we slowly understand the beauty and stability of his life and how that is slowly dismantled and it is no wonder, miles away and many years in the future, something in him yearns for that lost youth.

It is beautifully told, a simple story to follow, with many beautiful descriptive passages, even though we know that this time will be short-lived. It opens our eyes to the tensions that escalate into hatred and violence with little sense, the many victims and the many wounded by loss, destroyed by it.

The ending is not really an ending, it could be said there is more than one ending and perhaps there may even be another book. I found it incredibly moving and was amazed to be so moved in a language that is not my own. An incredible feat of writing, a wonderful talent.

Winner of five French literary prizes including the sought after Prix Goncourt des lycéens, it is due to be translated into English in June 2018 under the title Small Country by Hogarth Press.

As you can see from the photo above Gaël Faye is also a singer, rapper, composer and poet. Unfortunately that concert above is already sold out. However, there is a beautiful song, also named Petit Pays, which gives you a glimpse of that small country he is nostalgic for and the wonderful musical talent he possesses.

A top read, highly recommended.

20 thoughts on “Petit Pays by Gaël Faye

      • I wish I could say that… I was beside myself with excitement in the airport at New Caledonia to see all the French books they had on sale, I’d never seen so many (except in France, of course, but that’s not somewhere I can get to easily.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I bought a copy, and was about half way through it when my French bookgroup selected something else that I had to begin reading instead. And then I mislaid it… serves me right for changing handbags…
          Anyway, I will be starting it again soon. I really like the voice of the narrator, it seems so real that he would be preoccupied by other things in his life while disaster is looming.

          Liked by 1 person

  1. My French is extremely rusty and one of my 2018 goals is to get it back up to some semblance of respectability in anticipation of a trip we are planning next year. Not sure if I am in novel-reading territory yet, but this book sounds excellent, so I may well resist getting the translation and use it for language practice as well as a great read in the coming months. Thanks for the review! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • My first novella in French was Philippe Claudel’s Le Petite Fille de Monsieur Linh, I had the French version in paperback and the translation on the kindle, in the beginning I read each chapter twice until I realised I didn’t need to. I use the site rather than a dictionary as it gives example sentences. Reading is so good for the vocabulary, also watching films, hearing the language spoken. Good luck with getting your French back into motion Liz!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I know what you mean, I’m not very good at doing it, but I do like these slim novellas which are more inviting than a lengthy tome. I was worried I might miss out on something, but realised I’m capable of understanding much more than I think, especially to be so moved by the ending. It’s good to be able to read something worthy and recommended that’s not yet available in English. My next French book will be La Tresse by Laetitia Colombani, which I was given for my birthday, it sounds promising and is also set to be translated into English (into 16 languages in fact).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was reading your review wondering if there would be a translation; I was so pleased to read that there will be! (My attempts to read this in French would undoubtedly mar my experience of what sounds like a remarkable book.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Cynthia, I was propelled forward to do so knowing the translation is soon due out and if I got hold of that I would unlikely read the French version. I have two more books in that category, so I think I may be reading a couple more French this year, both I know are going to be translated.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Claire, thank you for your beautiful review. I also have PETIT PAYS in French , not yet read. However I did read Clemantine Wamariya’s memoir. THE GIRL WHO SMILED BEADS, Clemantine five along with her sister Claire fifteen survived the Rwandan genocide escaping so many refugee camps, two girl children. Often I put the book down to think…
    Definitely a required read for high schoolers. Should be on School and College curriculum.


  4. Pingback: Top Reads of 2018 – Word by Word

  5. Pingback: Petit Pays, (Small Country), by Gaël Faye | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog

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