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Murambi, the book of Bones

Murambi, The Book of Bones  ( Murambi ou le Livre des Ossements)

by Boubacar Boris Diop
Publishers: Indiana University Press,
ISBN: 9780253218520
181 pages
Translator: Fiona Mc Laughlin

Date of Publication: 2006

Murambi, The Book of Bones is a translation from the French of Diop's Murambi ou le Livre des Ossements. This is a novel set in the Rwandan Crisis of 1994. It was jury-selected as one of the 100 greatest books of 20th Century Africa.


 Life, Art, and Murambi, Book of Bones

“Gracie, don’t be alarmed but I think Simon just said something about stabbing your face with chopsticks.” Charissa’s sudden presence and quiet warning abruptly ends my conversation with Fran, but before I can ask what she means, she adds: “Oh. Here he comes.”

I turn my head to see an unusually serious looking Simon heading straight in my direction, with his curly hair bouncing furiously in comic syncopation with his stomps. Suddenly worried by the scowl on his face, I retreat rapidly while doing a mental scan of my archives of Recently Committed Wrongs. I still have no clue when reaches me and all I can manage is a confused “WHAT?

“That purple book of horror YOU lent me! It’s HORRIBLE! Did you KNOW what’s written in it?!” And as Simon glowers at me, I imagine pair of chopsticks appearing magically in his hands at any moment. But just as my overactive imagination conjures up awful Asian puns about my death in the following day’s news headlines, Fran sighs loudly enough to draw Simon’s attention: “Dude. It’s a book on genocide. What were you expecting?”

Murambi, the Book of Bones was written by Senegalese journalist and novelist Boubacar Boris Diop. The so-called ‘purple book of horror’, also known as ‘the purple book of evil’, ‘the book of doom’, ‘that book’ etc. (It must be said that Simon showed much ingenuity in never referring to the book by its real name.) Written in four parts, the novel traces the return of a Rwandan history teacher, Cornelius Uvimana to his motherland sometime after the 1994 genocide. He is the only one of his close family to have survived, except for one uncle, for at the time of the genocide Cornelius had been living and working in Djibouti. Yet, this very distance that saves him also denies him much detail of what happened to his family, and to his land and its people in those terrible days. Thus, his knowledge of those events is characterized by uncertainty and fragmentation.

Parts 1 and 3 are collections of snippets of stories which portray this: each part contains narratives of a multitude of voices who are involved in some way in the genocide. As a framing device, Parts 2 and 4 trace Cornelius’ own narrative of return and discovery. During his trip around the scarred landscape of Rwanda, visiting old friends and seeing genocide memorials, it is his trip to Murambi that proves to be the most painful and most revealing – for Murambi is not only the village where he grew up, the place where he left his family, but also the site of one of the most gruesome mass murders during the genocide. As Jessica, his old childhood friend explains to him, between fifty and sixty thousand people were slaughtered while sheltering in the Murambi Polytechnic.

Perhaps now is the time to take a step back here for those who might not know anything about the Rwanda genocide. Let us start with a fact: “Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days” (BBC News). But even this fact is uncertain – for some statistics say 800,000, others say 1000,000. Some says 90 days, others say 100. But suffice it to say: a lot of people died. Here’s another fact: “Most of the dead were Tutsis - and most of those who perpetrated the violence were Hutus” (BBC News). And another one “The genocide was sparked by the death of the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down above Kigali airport on 6 April 1994” (BBC News).

The story is remarkably simple, and yet cloudily complicated at the same time. For what story could be simpler than genocide – the systematic and deliberate destruction of a racial, political or political group. What story is more common than death? But at the same time, what could be more complicated to explain than the details, the justification, the causes? What is more knotty than the aftermath, the brokenness that is left behind? How do we explain this? How are we to understand?

It was these questions and similar, that lead me to Murambi. After being directed to the book by a colleague researching the Rwandan genocide, I took out a copy and started reading. The kaleidoscope of perspectives offered by the multitude of various narratives in Parts 1 and 3 proved gripping. Here we hear victims, perpetrators, soldiers and activists as they plead and reflect, in their hope and despair, before, during and after the genocide. Here, labels fall away to reveal ordinary people stuck in heart-wrenchingly extraordinary times. The brevity of the narratives in these parts also ensured that I kept on turning the pages, reading, skimming and searching for their re-appearance. Somehow I needed to know that the end of each story was not at the same time their end. The pleas for attention from the dead are, after all, far more powerful and commanding than the pleas of the living.

Yet, for the most part, these characters only appear that once, then disappear – it appears that not even literary fiction can hold the voices of the vanished. And the lucid simplicity of Diop’s writing makes the events of the past accessible, perhaps too accessible. But this makes it difficult to be casually disregarded. And this is where Simon became involved. One night, having spent time earlier with Simon and some other engineer friends, I had been on the verge of falling asleep, when an alarming thought struck: What if my friends were to never know the relevance of what I did as an English major?

What if I would leave varsity with insight into unmanned aircraft safety systems and submarine machinery, but they would never understand what it meant to read literature, experience art, question certainties and live in the veil of dreams. So Simon would be my project, I thought, as I closed my eyes again. Simon. Engin(e)erd Extreme. Reader of the grand total of 0 books that year (a record pretty much consistent from the years before, he’d assured me at some point). And just before I drifted asleep, I decided that Murambi would be the easiest way into the occult mysteries of literature.

It is a testament to our friendship, that upon hearing my plan, Simon placed himself under my tutelage. Not that he was entirely convinced. As I handed the book over to him, he cast a doubtful eye down to the black cover patterned by an x-ray sheet of purple bones, and said hesitantly “I told someone today that you were giving the book to me. And they were wondering if I shouldn’t be eased into this reading business?” To be fair, I hadn’t really thought through my choice. I’d just been gripped by a need to share the book with someone else, so that they too would feel ... complicit, I suppose. Guilty… disturbed... ashamed... horrified…

Not that I told Simon this. That would have scared him off from the beginning. But reflecting on it now, Murambi represented an entry into a world we rarely thought of in our relatively ‘First World’ lives where we didn’t need to struggle for money and comfort. Murambi spoke of a world familiar neither to me, nor to Simon - a world where friends and neighbours were suddenly no longer trustworthy, where family members disappeared without warning, where anarchy and death ruled in nauseating horror, where depravity quite often wore familiar and beloved faces. It also speaks of individuals becoming aware of how meaningless they were to the rest of the world, and of a world which carries on, unperturbed by the events taking place in one little ‘insignificant’ country.

Listen to these words from one Michel Serumundo, a Tutsi video store owner, on the day that President Habyarimana’s plane went down. Just before he steps out into the night to look for his missing boy, Michel tries to reassure his wife about the sudden presence and soldiers and barricades on the roads. Yet, even as he tells her that ‘the entire world is watching... [the Hutus] won’t be able to do anything’, he himself is not convinced.

“In my heart of heart I knew I was wrong. The World Cup was about to begin in the United States. The planet was interested in nothing else. And in any case, whatever happened in Rwanda, it would always be the same old story of blacks beating up on each other. Even Africans would say, during half-time of every match, “They’re embarrassing us, they should stop killing each other like that.” Then they’ll go on to something else. ‘Did you see that acrobatic flip of Kluivert’s?’ What I’m saying is not a reproach. I’ve seen lots of scenes on television myself that were hard to take. Guys in slips and masks pulling bodies out of a mass grave. Newborns they toss, laughing, into bread ovens. Young women who coat their throats with oil before going to bed. ‘That way,’ they say, ‘when the throat-slitters come, the blades of their knives won’t hurt as much.’ I suffered from these things without really feeling involved. I didn’t realize that if the victims shouted loud enough, it was so I would hear them, myself and thousands of other people on earth, and so we would try to do everything we could so that their suffering might end. It always happened so far away, in countries on the other side of the world. But in these early days of April in 1994, the other country on the other side of the world is mine”.

Yet, Murambi does more than provide a different perspective and an entry into other worlds. Based as it is on an event that makes us question the deep issues of life and death, complicity and denial, Murambi provides a dramatic background to questions that have long concerned plagued writers, poets and artists: how relevant is art? What is its function? What does art do that facts, historical accounts, or journalistic articles can’t? Pablo Picasso once said that "Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth." But we need go no further than the origin of Murambi, which suggests its own answers to this question.

In an introduction to the English translation of Murambi, Fiona Mc Laughlin, the translator, writes how Murambi was the product of a journey taken by Diop with 9 other prominent African writers. This group was invited to visit post-genocide Rwanda in 1998 in order to “bear collective witness to one of the most horrifying tragedies of the twentieth century” (Mc Laughlin). Mc Laughlin thus suggests that one of the functions of art, and consequently one of the responsibilities of the artist, is an engagement with such events in order to bear testimony.

But can anything bear testimony to such traumatic events? As the saying goes, isn’t it easy to let sleeping dogs die, or do we dare wake them? More importantly, are words strong enough to carry the burden of translating inhuman experiences? This last question in particular seems to plague Diop in his own retelling of the genocide, creating Cornelius as someone not only looking for answers, but also as someone looking to use these answers in a play about the genocide. Yet, the voices of the other characters question his intention. Cornelius’ childhood friend Jessica realizes at the end of one of her short chapters that “even words aren’t enough. Even words don’t know any more what to say.”

Another survivor, Gerard Nayinzira tells Cornelius in a retelling of his escape: “And all the beautiful words of the poets, Cornelius, can say nothing, I swear to you, of the fifty thousand ways to die like a dog, within a few hours”. However, after a visit to Murambi Polytechnic, where the bodies of several thousand Tutsis and Hutus have been preserved in situ in lime as a reminder of the genocide, Cornelius starts to understand the necessity of using his words: to not write means to resign us ” to the definitive victory of the murderers through silence”. Instead, he resolves to “tirelessly recount the horror. With machete words, club words, words studded with nails, naked words, and [...] words covered with blood and shit”. After all, “the dead of Murambi, too, had dreams, and [...] their most ardent desire was for the resurrection of the living”.

This is why we do not leave the past alone, and this is why we wake sleeping dogs. We dig up the bones of those who have died ignobly and give them a chance to breathe again, so that we, the living, too will be resurrected. In the case of Murambi, it is even simpler, as in Rwanda many bones and corpses already lie uncovered in display at various sites around the country as a permanent reminder that they too once lived. One might argue that there is not much excavation work to be done here, as the facts are already known. But what Murambi does, what art does, is to take these bones and make them dance, transforming the horrific, tragic, and overlooked into something ‘beautiful’ that cannot be ignored.

For these bones must dance - otherwise it is all too easy for us who have survived, to turn away once more. They must transfix us with their Totentanz so that we are led, not into destruction, but into the conviction that they once moved with the breath of the living. For they do not dare live again only as abstract facts, for we humans do not understand the abstract as well as we think we do. We do not really understand the implications of 800-1000,000 people dead in less than 100 days. We are shocked because it is expected that we should act shocked, because this is a number bigger than 799,999, bigger than 599,999, bigger than 3652, bigger than 1. But in the end, as beings with two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth, one body, we do not truly understand more than one, at the most two. We understand ‘me’ or ‘me and you’.

And it is in this space between ‘me and you’ that literature works. For in literature, I am someone else’s ‘me’, while at the same time I am still ‘me’. 800,000 people become someone, us, when we read of Cornelius’ sight of a female corpse lying on a tabletop, impaled with a stake through her vagina. Inside, we tear, when Jessica casually mentions the victim’s name to a Cornelius who will never understand what this name means, while we realize that this corpse is what has become of her best friend mentioned a few chapters previously. We breathe in the air of a dusty rural Rwanda, as Cornelius comes ever closer to uncovering the mystery surrounding his family’s death. We feel the crawl of tension on Michel’s skin as a soldier’s gaze rakes his face for signs of belonging, for reasons we are not yet aware of. We smell sweaty fear, as we wait for the soldiers to storm our hiding place. It is no longer ‘they’ that this happens to, but ‘we’, for it is through art that we become other. William Shakespeare wrote once: “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother”. It is through literature, then, that we bleed and become brothers of all men.

So what happened to Simon? Did he find that reading Murambi had in any way changed or challenged him? Not really, he says. In fact, he added, he left with more questions than ever. But that’s okay too, I want to tell him, but I’m not sure if he’ll be convinced. For sometimes, all art needs to do is to provoke people into thinking the questions. Art will never leave us with solid answers – art is that which can never fully express things in set tangible ways. Edward Hopper, the American painter, sums it up succinctly: “'If I could say it in words there would be no reason to paint”. Lest you don’t believe my words, hear it from Georges Braque as well, who writes “Art is made to disturb. Science reassures. There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.”

It is not that there is a dichotomy, an opposition between art and science as many people think there is. It is just that art and science are answers to different questions. Science is the answer to a rational universe that can be explained. Art is the answer that the universe is not an either/or, but a wonderful amalgamation of everything and more – that it is an and, and, and. Art is the answer that acknowledges that life is messy and complicated and entangled and inexplicable and... It is because life is and, and, and, that we understand an image of bones dancing, both alive and dead. It is because life is and, and, and that we need art.

Grace Kim

Grace Kim
lives in South Africa. She moved from Korea at the age of 2. She is currently studying for an M.A. in English at the University of Stellenbosch.

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