Small Country by Gaël Faye
I read it as a: hardback
Source: my own collection (BOTM selection)
Length: 192 pp
Small Country is Gaël Faye’s debut novel, and it is a gutpunch. The novel is told through the eyes of a ten year old boy, Gaby, who is the child of a French father and Rwandan mother. He and his younger sister, Ama, live a fairly privileged life in a neighborhood of ex-pats, relatively sheltered from much of the political instability and poverty that the rest of the country is subject to. Gaby’s father actively discourages him from listening to or learning about politics and doesn’t believe children should join in adult conversations, so for the first half of the book, most of the political events are filtered through the lens of a child who doesn’t really understand what is going on. Gaby’s main sources of concern are his parents’ fracturing relationship and maintaining his friendships with Gino and the other children in his neighborhood. When the war touches his family, though, Gaby grows up faster than any child should ever have to.
This was a difficult read, obviously. The topic alone would make it so, but seeing it through a child’s eyes made it worse. It was obvious that Gaby had no real idea what was happening and that his life was a lot more sheltered than the lives of many of those around him, including his household staff. Gaby’s home was in a fairly exclusive, guarded, safe-ish area. The cook and gardener who worked at his house everyday lived in a different area and were in danger every time they set foot in their homes. I don’t think Gaby ever fully realized that. It was just that one day, he noticed Donatien and Prothe were not there anymore and he wondered where they were. The political events were similarly vague until near the end of the book. They were all filtered through Gaby’s childish ignorance, which wasn’t all his fault. His father kept his children ignorant of politics, whether for their own safety or for some other reason, we never really know. Clearly, it didn’t work to keep them safe or clear from war. It came to them anyway. It stripped Gaby of his childhood, brutally. The writing reflects the way Gaby tried to cling to his childhood, wanting to keep things the way they were, just wanting to play with his friends and not worry about protecting his street or neighborhood. One of the most poignant lines of the book was when Gaby told his friends Gino and Francis, “You’re my friends because I love you, not because you’re from one ethnic group or another. I don’t want anything to do with all that!” (153). He is clinging to a childhood that has already deserted him, but he has not yet realized it, and it is heartbreaking.
How much of Gaby’s childhood was taken from him is really highlighted in the letters he exchanges with his French pen pal, a ten year old girl named Laure. In one of his letters, Gaby told Laure about the elections held in Burundi and how the people turned out in their droves to vote, told her about the political parties in the country, the candidates, and who ultimately won the election and why it was such a big deal to the people. In return, Laure sent a three-line letter, telling him she was having a fun vacation at the beach and that what he had written to her was funny. What Gaby wrote didn’t even register to Laure as an actual event, or that another child the same age as her could be living through something as impactful as a democratic election, as horrific as a genocide. It makes me think of this when he is thinking to himself, years later, “I used to think I was exiled from my country. But, in retracing the steps of my past, I have understood that I was exiled from my childhood. Which seems so much crueler.” (179).
This is a book that I will be thinking about for a long time.