Without Past, No Future. Forgetting, Remembering and Reconciliation in Gilbert Gatore’s "Le Passé devant soi"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

22 Pages, Grade: 1.3



1 Introduction

2 Invisible Rwanda in Le Passé devant soi

3 Trauma and storytelling

4 Tensions between remembering and forgetting
4.1 Building a nation
4.2 Tutsi and politisation of victimhood
4.3 Vilification of Hutu

5 Concluding remarks

6 Bibliography

1 Introduction

20 years ago, in 1994, the otherwise largely ignored little Central African country of Rwanda made the international headlines by making the world witness its most recent genocide to date. The countries two major ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi, had a long history of violence with recurring mutual massacres. Following the downing of the plane carrying Rwanda’s president Habyarimana, Hutu militias took control and together with the ordinary population tried to wipe out the Tutsi in countrywide government-sponsored massacres that exceeded previous massacres in quantity and quality. The number of killed people in these 100 days is estimated between 500,000 and 1 million, a quarter of them moderate Hutu who resisted the killings or helped Tutsi. The Hutu militias were eventually defeated by the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), whose leader, Paul Kagame, subsequently became the current Rwandan president.

Post-genocide Rwandan society, and therefore its government, faces a very precarious situation: how to rebuild a society in which there are more perpetrators than victims and in which the crimes where largely conducted by the ordinary population (though initially orchestrated by government troops)?1 Perhaps the biggest problem faced is that at their core the massacres were hate crimes as opposed to massacres for practical reasons, say, to get more land. Their aim was to wipe out a whole ethnic group and since this aim was not achieved, the essential motive, deep enmity between Hutu and Tutsi, has remained untouched. One of the country’s most pressing issues is therefore reconciliation between these two groups over the past conflicts.2

The Tutsi-led government has decided to tackle this complex problem by simple means: officially abolishing ethnicities and encouraging (some might say forcing) Tutsi survivors to forgive Hutu perpetrators. However, as noble and well-meaning this approach seems at first glance, the negative implications might far outweigh the positive ones in the long run, which will be discussed in detail further below. Many non-fictional papers have dealt with the phenomenon of “collective amnesia” (Buckely-Zistel, Remembering 131), yet a surprisingly small number of fictional works has done so, making the few existing ones the more valuable.

This paper is going to use one of these fictional works, Gilbert Gatore’s novel Le Passé devant soi (The Past Ahead), as an example to show why and how to challenge the approach of imposed silence as a means to deal with ethnic divides in post-genocide Rwanda, which lead to “ striking continuity from the pre-genocide to the post-genocide regime” (Reyntjens 32). There are three main problems with the government’s approach, each of which is dealt with in the novel: the whole issue of reinventing a nation, the consequences of this for the survivors (i.e., Tutsi), and the precarious situation perpetrators (i.e., Hutu) are put into. We will look at each of these problems in turn while constantly integrating how Le Passé devant soi criticises in the current politics of commemoration.

2 Invisible Rwanda in Le Passé devant soi

In Le Passé devant soi, we follow the story of Isaro Gervais, a survivor of what is referred to in the novel as “les événéments impensables” or just “cet événément”, and Niko-le-singe (Niko the ape, called so due to his terribly aligned teeth), who appears to have become a killer during some unspeakable event and who in the aftermath of said event decided to hide on an island, far away from human society. Both stories seem to be distinct from each other, but at the very end of the novel we learn that it is in fact Isaro who imagines Niko’s story, thus engaging in a dialogue between victim (herself) and perpetrator of the genocide (Niko). Following a radio announcement that evokes her country of birth, Isaro embarks on a search for the past she has tried to forget her whole life and which will come to dominate the novel. Much of the book is concerned with exploring the past, its relation to the future, and the tension between remembering and forgetting.

Isaro’s main aim is to write a book of commemoration, a monumental project that would document whatever thousands of survivors and perpetrators of the event want to contribute: eyewitness reports, songs, poems, drawings. However, she struggles to find a title for her work and finally decides to name it “En mémoire de . . . “, not being able to articulate what exactly she wants to commemorate. This is characteristic for the novel in the whole and also fittingly symbolic for the dilemma post-genocide Rwandans find themselves in: the urge to remember, to document what happened, and at the same time not being able (or allowed) to do so.

This dilemma is best embodied in the absence of anything explicitly relating to the genocide while clearly being all about it. Until now it has been assumed that the novel deals with Rwanda, yet “Rwanda”, “genocide”, “Tutsi”, or “Hutu” are nowhere to be found in the whole book. On the other hand, there are numerous allusions to places and situations that every reader familiar with the subject must associate with Rwanda and the genocide.

The most obvious link to Rwanda is the use of Kinyarwanda, the Rwandan language, at two instances: the first one being during Isaro’s interview when one of the committee’s directors addresses her with “Itonde ntacyo twari tzvakwangira”, which is Rwandan for “Calm down, we haven’t refused you anything yet” (Hitchcott 88); the second is “Iwacu”, meaning “at our place” or “at home”, the name Niko invents for his imaginary four-person village (Gatore 73). This strongly hints at Rwanda as the setting, though Kinyarwanda is also spoken in Burundi, DR Congo and southwest Uganda.

In addition, anyone who is familiar with eyewitness accounts of the genocide3 and secondary texts about it4 will instantly recognise a couple of other signs that the novel must be concerned with Rwanda. One of them is the machete, which has become a symbol closely related to the genocide, featuring in any film or book about it. Thus it is surely no coincidence that Niko carries a machete at all times, always well-sharpened (60) and which never leaves his belt (15/20). Also, when describing the killer groups, most carry machetes (52) and the voices in Niko’s dream predict large massacres by machete (47). Finally, the word couper (to cut) is used multiple times to describe to murders, a word used by survivors and perpetrators alike to stress the ordinariness and habit of wielding machetes since Hutu (unlike Tutsi) are traditionally farmers and well accustomed to using it and for many killers “getting to work” during the genocide was not much different from their normal field work.

Finally, several references to overflowing prisons add another aspect specific for post- genocide Rwanda. It is, in fact, a radio report about this that reminds Isaro of her heritage she has been trying to forget and which sets the whole story going: “Ce matin-là, la radio lui hurla que, dans un pays dont la seule évocation la figeait d’inquiétude, le nombre de prisonniers était tel qu’au rythme des jugements il faudrait deux ou trois siècles pour examiner le cas de chacun des détenus” (10). Due to the implication of large parts of the population in the genocide, an extremely high number of people in relation to the total population were imprisoned for crimes committed in connection to the massacres (about 120000, more than 10% of the total population, Steward 172). The killers targeted people of importance first, so most judges and lawyers who were not killers themselves were amongst the first to be murdered. s a consequence, Rwanda’s judicial system suffered a total breakdown and was simply not able to handle the amount of suspects. Still haunts Rwanda today, problem not seolved, gacacas To these aspects a few more can be added in order to finalise the impression that the novel is definitely set in Rwanda: the use of ID-cards to single out “barbarians” to kill (64), as the Hutu killers did to find Tutsi; the very specific marriage laws that would save a Hutu woman who was married to a Tutsi but condemn a Hutu man who had married a Tutsi woman (cf. Gatore 52/62); Niko’s mentioning of hundreds of people he killed with his group in a church, which must recall to the reader the infamous massacres in the churches of Nyamata and Ntarama.

So it should have become clear that Le Passé devant soi cannot but be about Rwanda and the genocide, probably leaving the reader confused as to why this is not made explicit anywhere. This paradoxical situation, further explained below in its consequences, is expressed by a survivor of the Ntarama massacre:

The genocide can never be a subject of discussion. If somebody comes out of prison we talk about issues around it, but never about the genocide. For instance, recently, a big génocidaire was released from prison. He had killedhere at Ntamara church. The first time I met him again was at Sunday mass.We chatted about people we both know in prison, without mentioning the genocide a single time. (qtd in Buckley-Zistel, Remembering 142)

3 Trauma and storytelling

There are explanations for this that present themselves: first, that the novel explores the mechanisms survivors of such traumatic experiences employ to deal with them; second, that it shows the effects - and implicitly criticises - of the government’s attempt to reinvent the nation.

At several occasions, the novel stresses that what is going to happen will be “unbearable” (4), that “its horror and cruelty surpasses anything that even the most imaginative mind could envisage” (56); yet imagining such a story is exactly what Le Passé devant soi does, even doubly so through Isaro who invents another such story within the story. As Hitchcott explains, “this paradox reflects the ambiguous relationship between survivors and their memories: they need to tell their stories in order to come to terms with what has happened, but the horror of what they remember is such that they are often unable to put it into words” (82). Writing about the trauma of Holocaust survivors, trauma theorist Cathy Caruth explains: The traumatized . . . carry an impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history that they cannot entirely possess” (5). She goes on to describe that since survivors of such events cannot comprehend the horrors they witnessed, they can also not imagine them, and therefore are unable to come to terms with that whole experience. The result is that survivors of trauma are possessed by the past rather than possessing it (Hitchcott 82), leading memories returning in the form of flashbacks that convey “both the truth of an event . . . the truth of its incomprehensibility” (Caruth 153). Various first-hand reports both of survivors and perpetrators confirm that (cf. Hatzfeld, Into the Quick of Life/ Nur das nackte Leben & The Strategy of Antelopes). Thus in the novel, simply hearing the name of her country of birth prompts Isaro to go on her journey in spite of all the years during which she tried and suppress her memories.

For the other, broader, explanation, one has to understand post-genocide Rwanda’s politics of building a nation.

Ethnicity was at the core of the 1994 genocide and has indeed been the “bane of Rwanda” (Lemarchand 66). To break the circle of mutual violence between Tutsi and Hutu, the Rwandan government saw it as crucial to get rid of ethnic labels once and for all in order to end ‘divisionism’, following the logic of “if awareness of ethnic differences can be learned, so too can the idea that ethnicity does not exist” (Lacey). Consequently, the mentioning of ethnicity was banned from identity cards, schoolbooks, from the radio and newspapers. The effort to erase ethnic designations was finally codified in Rwanda’s constitution of 2003 that, in order to promote national unity, forbids any mentioning of discriminatory terms, specifically the terms Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa (3). Instead, Rwandans of any origin have to be referred to as Banyarwanda, “those who come from Rwanda”; anyone failing to do so is guilty of “divisionism”, punishable by fines or even prison, and being branded “enemy of Rwanda” (Stockhammer 120-1).

However, logical and resolute as this approach might seem, it has also been criticised for serious flaws that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, have had serious side effects on the psyche of the Rwandan nation as a whole as well as on an individual level.

In the novel, the important role of remembering and recovering the past is demonstrated in the village’s storyteller, Shema, who is the last one to arrive at Niko’s cave; the leaf-and-stick shack Shema builds for himself looks like a tomb to Niko, foreshadowing the role the storyteller will play in the society after “des évenéments impensables” (71), that is, none. He is the only one not to be allowed to pick up his profession before the events and was locked up in is house out of fear that he might say something that should rather not be said. This treatment of the storyteller points to the attempts to ‘lock away’ the memories of the genocide which nobody wants to be reminded of. However, these attempts only succeed on a surface level: in his head, Shema and invisible audience continues listening to his stories, the old stories and especially the new ones, in particular “ce que personne ne voulait entendre” (71).

Shema’s character can be seen to illustrate two points concerning the genocide: first, there is no use in trying to suppress memories of traumatic events because in spite of ostensible forgetting, inside they will continue to haunt the person: when Isaro hears the name of her country of birth, all the memories she tried to suppress come back, causing her to go back and confront her past, while Niko has trembling fits and vomits whenever he is reminded of what he did; second, it is equally futile and a mistake not to want to hear the stories about the genocide, which is “symbolised by the incarceration and exile of the storyteller” (Hitchcott 11). It is this that Isaro wants to counter with her project, against the fears of some people, represented in the novel through La Fondation de France, that remembering would prevent people from going on with their lives, that “garder une trace d’un tel passé revenait à empêcher les gens de tourner lapage, à maintenir devant eux cette cicatrice et les souvenirs qu’elle suscite en chacun d’eux” (Gatore 27). Just as the storyteller cannot be silenced for good, the people cannot simply forget what happened and go on with their lives as before. Yet this is what the RPF tries to do, in spite of all claims to uphold the ‘duty to remember.’ The novel alludes to that when explaining how the memory of the dead is treated following the end of the killings, “lorsqu’il n’y a plus personne ă tuer” (56):

L’effacement puis l’oubli furent réalisés sans tarder. Personne ne parla des massacres ni n’y fit allusion. Ceux qui étaient morts n’avaient en quelque sorte pas existé, leurs biens ne leur avaient jamais appartenu et ceux qui ne respectaient pas ce devoir d’oubli durent aller ailleurs, là où leurs souvenirs ne dérangeaient personne. Pour compléter ce travail, plusieurs mots qui avaient un lien plus ou moins évident avec les massacres furent bannis du langage. (56)

As Hitchcock rightly points out, this represents “a sinister parallel . . . with the way in which Interahamwe and the Rwandan armed forces worked systematically to conceal the evidence of the genocide” and condemns “how quickly the genocide disappeared from view” (11).

This might seem contradictive in light of the yearly commemorations of the genocide, the regular months of mourning, workshops, etc., that happen have happened from 1994 to date in Rwanda. In order to understand why Le Passé devant soi brings forth this thinly veiled criticism of Rwandan politics, it is first necessary to know some details about how the RPF tries to reinvent the nation.

4 Tensions between remembering and forgetting

4.1 Building a nation

Any nation that intends to (re-)forge itself has to decide what should be part of its identity, its cultural memory, and what should not. Some unpleasant things might want to be forgotten, others, more positive, are likely to be stresses. s Stanley Cohen writes, “[memory is a social product, reflecting the agenda and social location of those who invoke it” (241), stressing that memory is always inherently selective and subjective.

Now there is a problem when several memories compete with each other for becoming the dominant or official one, i.e., the one that is shared by the most numerous and/or most powerful people in a given society. In the case of Rwanda, there is a host of groups who all have a different version of what happened during the genocide and what it signifies: Tutsi who were direct victims of violence and survived, but also Tutsi who came to Rwanda after the genocide and now claim its legacy as theirs, having directly witnessed its violence; Hutu who murdered their neighbours, but also



2 It should be noted however, that there is a third ethnic group in Rwanda, the Twa. Making up 1% of Rwandan society, the Twa are a people of Pygmies that traditionally hold a very subjugated position in Rwandan society. Largely ignored by Rwandan und international media and academia alike, as much as 30% (or 10000 people) of the Twa population was killed during the genocide (Lewis 93) and have yet to receive any acknowledgment, let alone reparation, for that.

3 For detailed first-hand reports, see Hatzfeld’s excellent books Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide - The Survivors Speak and A Time for Machettes: The Rwandan Genocide: The Killers Speak.

4 Two classics on this are Gorevitch’s We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families and Kinzer’s A Thousand Hills.

Excerpt out of 22 pages


Without Past, No Future. Forgetting, Remembering and Reconciliation in Gilbert Gatore’s "Le Passé devant soi"
University of Tubingen  (English Department)
Visions of the Future, Shadows of the Past: Contemporary Issues in African Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
955 KB
Africa, Gilbert Gatore, Le passé devant soi
Quote paper
Gregor Schönfelder (Author), 2014, Without Past, No Future. Forgetting, Remembering and Reconciliation in Gilbert Gatore’s "Le Passé devant soi", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/353268


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Without Past, No Future. Forgetting, Remembering and Reconciliation in Gilbert Gatore’s "Le Passé devant soi"

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free