Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Running the Rift: Naomi Benaron (Rwanda)

Jean Patrick dreams of running in the Olympics one day, and with gruelling training he soon beats a world qualifying time. But his chances of success are threatened by the ethnic tensions erupting all around him. When Hutu violence against Tutsis finally crescendos and his homeland Rwanda is wracked by unforgivable atrocities, Jean Patrick, a Tutsi, has no choice but to run for his life abandoning fatherland, family, and the woman he loves. Finding them again will be the race of his life. Following a decade in Rwanda s history through the eyes of one boy, Running the Rift is a wrenching tale of a people s collective trauma, of lives lost, and loves salvaged.

I bought this book as the Kindle Book of the Day, despite its American authorship, having been drawn by its Olympic theme, given that London and indeed the village where I live in Surrey, will later this year play host to the 2012 Games. I was intrigued by the promise of a story of the Rwandan genocide mixed with the hopes and dreams of an Olympic athlete.

Initially I found it quite heavy going and for a moment even considered giving up, but I stayed with it, and in the end was glad that I did, for the more I read, the better the story got. Sure there are stereoptypes - the Americans for example who in some ways save Jean Patrick's life, but this is nevertheless a very believable tale of what happened during the darkest hour in Rwandan history. This book is not however a tale about the genocide, but very much one about an individual, in this case Jean Patrick. 

When we first meet him he is ten years old, a young Tutsi with a gift for running, and hopes of being the first Rwandan to run in the Olympics. His parents, who are simple folk but not uneduated, try to protect their family from the racial tensions and undercurrents that they know are bubbling ever present beneath the surface. Eventually however, these become impossible to ignor, when almost daily acts of violence and open discrimination begin to have an effect on the family's lives.

As Jean Patrick's Olympic dreams begin to reach fruition, he finds himself manipulated by the Hutu led government, who use him a Tutsi, as an example to enhance their own somewhat flagging human rights profile. Because he wants to survive, and because he wants to see the best in people, he ignors the warnings of friends and colleagues, willing to sacrifice his own instincts in order to represent his country.

Into the mix comes Bea, the beautiful and beguiling love interest, a student journalist whose father, a journalist before her, has hidden enemies, and whose mother bears a secret - the fact that she too is Tutsi. As Jean Patrick and Bea's relationship develops, so the war escalates, until both are forced to choose - family or freedom. Bea chooses the former, and Jean Patrick the latter, as he literally runs for his life.

The injuries that he sustains put to an end to his Olympic dreams,. but he has his life, and ultimately he has Bea too, for against the odds after four years in the United States, he learns that she is alive after all, and that she has a son.

I had read books before of this nature - including one set in neighbouring Burundi, so was and am no stranger to what took place, but somehow for me, this felt less real. Maybe it was because it is a novel, where the other books that I have read were first hand accounts written by true survivors. That said, one could imagine that a tale like this could be real, and I am sure that there are and have been many athletes who have been forced to abandon their dreams because of war.

This book may be about Jean Patrick and what happened to him, but it is also the story of countless other Rwandans, gifted athletes and otherwise, for it a story about family, friendships and so much more. It is also a tale of how neighbours and friends can turn on each other for the smallest, often imagined difference, about the mob mentality and about what happens when we stop understanding that all of humanity is one. 

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Purge - Sofi Oksanen (Estonia)

Deep in an Estonian forest, two women, one young, one old, are hiding. Zara is a prostitute and a murderer, on the run from brutal captors – men who know how to punish a woman. Aliide offers refuge but not safety: she has her own criminal secrets – traitorous crimes of passion and revenge committed long ago, during the country’s brutal Soviet years. Both women have survived lives of abuse. But this time their survival depends on revealing the one thing history has taught them to keep safely hidden: the truth. A haunting, intimate and gripping story of suspicion, betrayal and retribution against a backdrop of Soviet oppression and European war.

Sofi Oksanen although born in Finland, is of Estonian extraction through her mother, who emigrated to Finland from the former Soviet republic in 1970. She is the author of three highly acclaimed works, this being the third and most recent.

This novel, which is set of course in Estonia covers the period from the late 1940's through to the early 1990's, shortly after the country regained independence.    

When we first meet the main character, Aliide Truu, she is living a somewhat solitary life in an Estonian village set deep in the forest. One morning after waging war against a fly, she spots something strange outside her window - unsure as to what it is, she investigates only to find that it a young woman in a somewhat dilapidated state, brusied and battered with torn clothes. Aliide's instincts tell her that she should leave the girl where she is, but because she can sense the danger that this girl is in, against her instincts, she takes her in.    

Slowly the girl's (whose name is Zara) past begins to unfold, and at the same time, so does Aliide's, for both are harbouring deep and terrible secrets. In Aliide's case the secrets are half a decade old, but she is connected to Zara in ways that she does not realise, for unbeknown to her, Zara is the daughter of her neice, whose mother, Aliide's sister was sent to Siberia as a traitor during the Communist years, by Aliide's own husband. 

As the two stories unfold, we begin to understand more about the history of Estonia and the choices and consequences of those choices, that her citizens had to make in order to survive. The two women on the surface at least are very different, and yet they are the same, victims of circumstance, of perhaps having made the wrong choices, choices that nevertheless they felt they had to make and choices that once made, could not be unmade.

This would for those of a more sensitive disposition be a somewhat disturbing book, exploring as it does prostitution, trafficking, and betrayal in no short amount, but there are two sides to each story, and this is also a book about survival and redemption and of what the human spirit can endure when pushed almost to the very edge. For me it is a must read.