“I am not a girl”: Edna O’Brien, Girl

GirlHe apologizes if the buffoons have been heavy-handed, but I must realize that to them I am not a girl, I am not even a person, I am the portent of death, I am a decoy, sent to create a distraction before an attack.

Do I even want to write about Girl? I’m as ambivalent about doing this as I felt about Girl itself, beginning as soon as the end of the first chapter and continuing until I finished reading it–which didn’t take very long, as it is both fast-moving and sparse as a narrative. What’s the problem–what’s my problem–with this novel?

I think I can best sum it up by saying that it seems, somehow, like a category error: it should be non-fiction. I know: there’s probably no way that objection to it can be cogent, can be defended. Still, that’s what I felt, reading it. That’s how I still feel, reflecting on it. It’s not that the novel isn’t artistically done. O’Brien is too good a stylist for that. The telling of the story from inside the girl’s head is risky (it is potentially invasive) but perhaps better than the alternative (observing her trauma from the outside could be voyeuristic, prurient). The imaginative reconstruction of her consciousness is what makes the difference between Girl as a novel and the carefully and sensitively researched documentary that it also, sort of, is. But (and I rarely think this, much less argue for it) it didn’t seem right to me to make art out of this tragically real story.

The obviously beneficial impulse is to make sure more people know about (and feel, vicariously) the horrors it relates, which are not at all fictional. I am an advocate for fiction that puts a human face on suffering that might otherwise remain abstract or safely distanced. When the horrors are contemporary and well-documented, maybe we shouldn’t need that, though I did in this case, at least insofar as I’d known already about the Boko Haram abductions but not allowed myself to think hard about them. I’ve wondered before about the point of reading about suffering: I concluded then, with the help of Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, that there is some value to it, if only that it is better to know than not to know. One reason I chose to read Girl was exactly that: to know better, to look closer (and also because I though O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs was a really compelling novel about a different traumatic history, and I was interested to see what she had done this time).Girl2

Why am I left dissatisfied and uncomfortable, then? Why do I think I would have liked the book Gourevitch would write about Boko Haram better than I liked Girl? The very things that make Girl good as a novel–that it is reticent, personal, careful not to turn intimacy into intrusion, and also highly stylized–are the same things that made me restless because the story of this one girl (O’Brien says “I decided that my only method was to give the imaginative voicings of many through one particular visionary girl”) felt inadequate to the bigger picture, meaning not just the appalling number of girls who suffered as she does but also the larger context in which such stories could unfold. Maybe O’Brien’s point in leaving out any explanations, relaying only the immediate experience, is that it doesn’t really matter what the context is: that there is no framing that makes sense of a story like the one she tells.

I can’t decide if I think Girl is a good novel. Its true and painful subject is critically disabling, for me. Other critics have said all the right things: “searing, savage,” “immensely painful,” “heart-wrenching,” “empathetic.” J. M. Coetzee is quoted as calling it “a courageous book about a courageous spirit.” It must have been a very difficult book to research and write: fast as it was to read, it still meant spending more time with a lot of horrific specifics than I wanted to. Its narrative is broken up and fragmented: I see the logic of that, but it also seems like too obvious a narrative solution to the novel’s problem of how (not) to recreate its own traumas. Its events have no meaning to its narrator; kept in her head with her, we can find no meaning either, and maybe we shouldn’t, but I would have liked some–I would have liked something in the novel that did what Gourevitch does in We Wish to Inform You, which is to provide a way of looking, a way of thinking, about what happened.

If you’ve read Girl, I’d be very interested in knowing what you thought.

Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

gourevitchA couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I had been reading an excerpt from Gourevitch’s book with my Intro class (his first chapter is included in our reader). I was particularly struck by his comments about the awkwardness but also, in his view, the necessity of “looking closely into Rwanda’s stories.” His argument is that “ignoring them makes me even more uncomfortable about existence and my place in it”; when, reading Wave, I was worrying about the morbid voyeurism of contemplating other people’s tragedies, this line echoed in my head, as it implies that what we ought to feel uncomfortable about is looking away.

Another part of our excerpt that lingered, and which became especially resonant as we began our discussions of Elie Wiesel’s Night, is this one:

I had never been among the dead before. What to do? Look? Yes, I wanted to see them, I suppose; I had come to see them — the dead had been left at Nyarubuye for memorial purposes — and there they were, so intimately exposed. I didn’t need to see them. I already knew, and believed, what had happened in Rwanda. Yet looking at the buildings and the bodies, and hearing the silence of the place, with the grand Italianate basilica standing there deserted, and beds of exquisite, decadent, death-fertilized flowers blooming over the corpses, it was still strangely unimaginable. I mean one still had to imagine it.

“One still had to imagine it”: how can this be, if you already know and believe — if you’re looking right at the terrible evidence? It’s not so much that it happened that he can’t comprehend as how and why. (“How many hacks to dismember a person?” “What is required above all is that they want their victims dead. They have to want it so badly that they consider it a necessity.”) And yet even the remains of the dead (“the strange tranquility of their rude exposure”) are not really enough to make their bleak reality real to him: “I wondered whether I could really see what I was seeing while I saw it.” Disbelief and the inability to imagine: it’s against these forces that a book like Night, or a book like this one, is written.

Now that I’ve read all of Gourevitch’s book, I appreciate the grim sensitivity he brings to his task of telling us (as his subtitle says) “stories from Rwanda.” He doesn’t undertake to explain the genocide: “nothing really explains that,” he says bluntly. That doesn’t mean he presents his stories without context: more of the book than I expected, actually, is devoted to the history and politics of Rwanda and its neighbors, and to the culture of “authority and compliance” that contributed both to the genocide and, later, to the country’s restoration (“you put in a new message, and — presto! — revolutionary change”). Gourevitch is particularly specific and scathing about the failings of international intervention before and during the genocide, and the horribly, perhaps cynically, misguided provision of “aid” to the refugee génocidaires after: “This was one of the great mysteries of the war about the genocide: how, time and again, international sympathy placed itself at the ready service of Hutu Power’s lies.” I read Roméo Dallaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil not long after it came out in 2003, and remember being just as outraged and bewildered then at the complete and utter disaster that the UN mission to Rwanda became. Gourevitch’s style tends towards understatement: he lays out what he sees and hears and often leaves the implications unstated, which is usually effective because the extremities he depicts require little glossing, while the quandaries he exposes defy complacent editorializing. When he shows himself, however, it’s often with a lash or sting, as when he recalls looking at newspaper photos of Rwandan genocide victims while lined up to visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum:

Looking up from the paper, I saw a group of museum staffers arriving for work. On their maroon blazers, several wore the lapel buttons that sold for a dollar each in the museum shop, inscribed with the slogans “Remember” and “Never again.” The museum was just a year old; at its inaugural ceremony, President Clinton had described it as an “investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead.” Apparently all he meant was that the victims of future exterminations could now die knowing that a shrine already existed in Washington where their suffering might be commemorated, but at the time, his meaning seemed to carry a bolder promise.

Dallaire, Gourevitch reminds us, “declared that with just five thousand well-equipped soldiers and a free hand to fight Hutu Power, he could bring the genocide to a rapid halt. No military analyst whom I’ve heard of,” Gourevitch goes on, “has ever questioned his judgment, and a great many have confirmed it.” But instead the UN force was cut by 90% and almost all they could do was look on. “The West’s post-Holocaust pledge that genocide would never again be tolerated,” Gourevitch concludes,

proved to be hollow, and for all the fine sentiments inspired by the memory of Auschwitz, the problem remains that denouncing evil is a far cry from doing good.

But though reminders of these hollow promises recur throughout the book (and the epigraphs from the final section are taken from Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz and The Drowned and the Saved), We Wish to Inform You is not a polemic but an extension of the instinct Gourevitch describes in that first chapter: “to look a bit more closely.” “I couldn’t settle on any meaningful response,” he tells us;

revulsion, alarm, sorrow, grief, shame, incomprehension, sure, but nothing truly meaningful. I just looked, and I took photographs, because I wondered whether I could really see what I was seeing while I saw it, and I wanted also an excuse to look a bit more closely.

Looking closely does not mean turning the victims of the genocide into a spectacle: We Wish to Inform You is not “disaster porn.” Gourevitch is self-conscious about the problem of aestheticizing violence. He wonders at one point, explaining about his own resistance to seeing the dead at Nyarubuye, “does the spectacle really serve our understanding of the wrong?” or does it cause us to “become inured to — not informed by — what we are seeing”? As far as is possible with a subject like his, in fact, Gourevitch spares us specific horrors. We hear a lot about “killings,” but mostly get the general idea (machetes, shootings) rather than detailed rehearsals of exactly what, exactly how. The scale of killing is overwhelming, so he makes it at once personal and comprehensible by attaching us to a few specific individuals, survivors whose experiences are not held up as representative but only as examples of shocking, inexplicable loss but also good fortune — for after all, the people he talks to are all survivors (“to those who were targeted, it was not death but life that seemed an accident of faith”).  When we do learn of particular deaths, they thus have the traumatic force they might lose in any attempt to give a more comprehensive chronicle. In Kigali, Gourevitch encounters Edmond Mrugamba, who “invited me to join him for a visit to the latrine into which his sister and her family had been thrown.” They walk around the house to the holes, “neat, deep, machine-dug wells”:

 Edmond grabbed hold of a bush, leaned out over the holes, and said, “You can see the tibias.” I did as he did, and saw the bones.

“Fourteen meters deep,” Edmond said. He told me that his brother-in-law had been a fanatically religious man, and on April 12, 1994, when he was stopped by interahamwe at a road-block down the street and forced to lead them back to his house, he had persuaded the killers to let him pray. Edmond’s brother-in-law had prayed for half an hour. Then he told the militiamen that he didn’t want his family dismembered, so they invited him to throw his children down the latrine wells alive, and he did. Then Edmond’s sister and his brother-in-law were thrown in on top.

This story alone is devastating enough that it is indeed unimaginable that such inhumane things happened on the scale that we know them to have happened: the mind recoils. It’s also inconceivable that so many outsiders could so blithely have urged reconciliation. “It’s offensive,” says Edmond, standing by the latrine that became his family’s grave. “Imagine talking to Jews of reconciliation in 1946.” Nonetheless, uneasily, improbably, often violently, the people of Rwanda — the survivors and the genocidal killers — began the transition to being neighbors, colleagues, and citizens again. Describing the return of thousands of Hutu refugees to the communities they ravaged and then fled, Gourevitch observes,

Never before in modern memory had a people who slaughtered another people, or in whose name the slaughter was carried out, been expected to live with the remainder of the people that was slaughtered, completely intermingled, in the same tiny communities, as one cohesive national society.

That too seems unimaginable, even as it is also, in some sense, clearly necessary, and much of Gourevitch’s book addresses the moral chaos of this world in which “true justice” is impossible.

Gourevitch ends on a cautiously optimistic note. “Power consists,” he says early on, “in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality”; later, he reiterates the importance of “how we imagine ourselves and of how others imagine us.”  An effort of imagination, then — an effort to tell a different story, to insist on a different version of reality — is the best, or at least the only meaningful, resistance. We Wish to Inform You is full of failures to resist in this way, from those Rwandans who accepted the Hutu Power narratives of antagonistic identities and hatreds to the outsiders who envisioned “the Rwandan catastrophe … as a kind of natural disaster — Hutus and Tutsis simply doing what their natures dictated, and killing each other.” Gourevitch’s final story from Rwanda is not a happy one. At a boarding school in 1997, seventeen schoolgirls, faced with Hutu Power militants, refused to identify themselves or each other as Hutu or Tutsi and thus as enemies. It would be nice if their show of solidarity had won over the génocidaires, but in fact their refusal to discriminate caused them to be “beaten and shot indiscriminately.” Seventeen of them died. But in rejecting the militants’ reality, they stood up courageously for their own, and their world was one of friendship, not hate. Imagine that.