Gilbert Gatore’s debut novel The Past Ahead, Oct 2012, (Le passé devant, 2008) has literally taken my breath away while reading and for quite some time afterwards. Without ever mentioning either the country by name or the concept of genocide, the author brings the reader intimately close to the emotional turmoil of his two protagonists as they, from their very dissimilar post-trauma reality struggle to re-adjust to life after theirs was forever changed. They stand, without doubt as representatives for many.
Two Rwandans, Isaro and Niko, their destinies intimately linked, are both survivors of the horrors of the massacres in their country. Distinct in their voices, complete opposites in the reflecting on their experiences, their combined stories, told in parallel, create a deeply affecting portrayal of the limits of human endurance in times of greatest traumas. They are the two sides of a tragedy that is difficult to comprehend even now, almost twenty years later.
Isaro was saved as a young child by a French couple and grew up within a caring and protective family, the past more or less banned to the farthest recesses of her brain. Until that is, listening to the radio, she hears that the prosecution of the perpetrators of the massacres in her country would take several lifetimes to complete. What shocks her more than anything is the reaction of people around her: “It’s terrible, but what can you do…?” For her, the only response is to return to the country of her birth and to bring the different voices – of victims and perpetrators – into the open – to confront and to heal?
Niko, disfigured and mute since birth and rejected by all in his village, has retreated to an island that is rich in mythology and void of human beings. His mind wanders between haunting memories of the past and foreshadowing dreams. His life story emerges through his re-imagining, as revealing for the reader as to himself. Niko’s contemplations often return to self-questioning: Is he victim as well as perpetrator? Could or should he have acted differently? Did he have a choice?
These fundamental questions haunt Isaro as she embarks on her quest to “comprehend the incomprehensible”, to help herself and others, she hopes, to go on living beyond the trauma. And of course, they increasingly preoccupy the reader. Despite exploring such profound questions the narrative remains intimately engaged in the personal story. Nonetheless, comparisons to other human tragedies may come to mind.
Not surprisingly, The Past Ahead is anything but an “easy read”, despite the author’s careful use of language and, where possible, oblique references to the devastating details. What does it take for an author to enter so deeply into the conflicting mind of his anti-hero without destroying him totally in the mind of the reader? Gatore deserves more than praise for succeeding so admirably. There is poetry in Niko’s dreams; his description of his disabilities that are offset by his special sensitivities: “His ears discern the subtlest movements. His eyes pick up the most distant sounds. His nose embraces invisible shapes. His hands detect odors beyond the trace of a hint. As for his tongue, it tracks down indescribable feelings in the air he breathes.” Isaro may be the more real-to-life, down-to-earth character: Strong at times, yet also overwhelmed at times, emotional and sensitive to her environment and her re-assessment of her life’s challenges.
The Past Ahead is not only a powerful book, exquisitely crafted and now, finally, translated into English by Marjolijn de Jager, it is an important book that deserves a wide readership. It may be the first fictional treatment of the Rwandan Genocide by a Rwandan national. While Gil Courtemanche’s A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, may come to mind, Gatore’s book stands out in treating the tragedy in a very different kind of literary form and from a very intimate perspective.
Gilbert Gatore was born in Rwanda and escaped with his family in 1994, the year of the massacres. He was twelve years old and very much aware of the events unfolding around him, without comprehending the broader context or meaning. Absorbed by the Diary of Anne Frank that his father had given to him, he embarked on keeping his own diary. It only exists in his memory now; it was taken away by border guards during the family’s flight in Africa.