Translated by Tess Lewis.
Rwanda 1994: It took only 100 days for 800,000 people to be clubbed or macheted to death. How was that possible?
The protagonist of Bärfuss’s novel, David Hohl, is a Swiss development worker who spends the 100 days of the massacre hiding in his compound, having refused to flee the country with his fellow compatriots and workers. He accuses them of leaving, unfairly I thought, without a backward glance. He is not wishing to save the country, only his Rwandan love. If he could get her out of the country with him, he wouldn’t look backwards either.
His experience is a traumatic one but it does give him time to reflect on the previous four years and pinpoint both personal and political errors of judgment. In the same way as he is blind to the faults and true nature of his lover, Agathe, the Swiss, who pumped more money into Rwanda than any other nation, continued to pursue their own agenda heedless of the consequences. They taught the Rwandans advance planning, order and organisation. Hohl controversially claims that, by doing so, the Swiss Development Agency effectively facilitated the massacre.
I know that perfect order rules in a perfect Hell, and sometimes when I look at our country, the balance, the propriety with which everything is done, I remember that they called that country from Hell the Switzerland of Africa, not just because of the mountains and the cows, but also because of the discipline that rules every aspect of daily life. I know now that genocide is only possible in an organised state; in which everyone knows his place and not even an insignificant bush grows on a random spot and not a single tree is cut down arbitrarily, only because an order to clear the ground was issued, because a decision was entered on a particular form and ratified by the appropriate authority.
This novel raises huge questions of compliance and complicity. As a rookie development worker, Hohl is ruled by his idealism and this brings him into conflict with his more experienced colleagues – despite the fact that he is doing the right thing. But politics – and development work is as susceptible to politics as anything – isn’t about doing the right thing, or the pragmatic thing. Sometimes it’s downright cynical.
Hohl may claim the moral high ground but he’s soon brought down to earth. As his 100 days of self-imposed incarceration progresses, the man who took pity on a buzzard with a broken wing, finds he cannot escape without resorting to dirty tricks of his own.
Despite the highly politicised and controversial content (I would love to know how this novel was received in Switzerland), this is a highly readable and visual novel with lots of literary tricks. The use of flashback takes us into the recent past and the roots of the genocide. The evocation of the country is real. So are the people who are depicted flaws and all. I love the mirroring of the relationships on both macro and micro levels. I’m particularly struck by that buzzard. I could argue that its fate parallels that of the Swiss Development Agency or even of David Hohl himself.
No wonder this novel has taken the German speaking world by storm. The accolades don’t stop with the list at the top of this post. It was announced only last week that Bärfuss will receive the 2013 Berlin Literature Prize.