Almost inevitably, Lukas Bärfuss’ Hundert Tage has been called a Heart of Darkness for the 21st century. But while he obviously pays homage to Conrad in the story-within-a-story form, Bärfuss has actually created something all his own. Previously known for his stage plays and a single novella, Lukas Bärfuss has never been shy of drawing attention to Switzerland’s faults. This time, though, he pillories his country for its role in the Rwandan genocide.
David Hohl (meaning hollow), the second and main narrator, tells the story of his time as an administrator for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation in Kigali. He sets out for Africa (from Brussels, another nod at Heart of Darkness, perhaps) a young idealist. But an incident at the airport makes him (and us) question his motivation. A young African woman is being hassled by officials and David takes an angry stand on her behalf. She, however, doesn’t even acknowledge his intervention and certainly doesn’t reward him with the gratitude he expected.
Arriving in Kigali, David Hohl begins leading the dull life of an ex-pat bureaucrat. I found this section of the novel fascinating, as it really reminded me of British colonialist tales. The ex-pats refuse to learn the local language (a “Bantu idiom”) and live an entirely separate, privileged life. There is even a kind of Happy Valley set revolving around a character named Missland, who some critics see as the novel’s Kurtz. Throughout the book, the Swiss adopt a thoroughly patronizing tone towards the Rwandans – they are not ready for democracy, they need to be taught like children how to behave correctly, they are orderly, obedient and unmusical with a love of cows just like the Swiss, and so on. But David seems critical of this attitude, especially when he finally comes across the woman from the airport again.
Their relationship develops as Rwanda descends into genocide. Trapped in the country by the fighting, Agathe condescends to sleep with David and they start a rather superficial relationship. David is obsessed with their extreme sex, swaying between shame, fear of being perverted, and pride at ignoring their cultural differences. And Agathe evolves from the arrogant westernized woman at the airport to a Florence Nightingale tending his wounds after the pope’s visit caused a mass crush, then getting more and more radical as she is drawn into the ethnic violence. But Bärfuss hasn’t made it easy for himself or his readers – Agathe is a Hutu, from a family well-placed in the country’s hierarchies, and ends the novel in a cholera-induced haze, the feared head of an Interahamwe militia group.
Because of Agathe, or perhaps because of a childish longing for adventure and a naïve will to stand by his principles, Hohl does not leave the country along with the rest of his colleagues after the president’s plane is gunned down. He spends the hundred days of the genocide in hiding in his spacious house. Provided with food and water by his former gardener, he ekes out an existence in the knowledge that no one will harm him, a foreigner. But when he realizes his gardener is doing more than just looting out there in the real world, he turns on him. Now alone and on the brink of starvation, he is finally saved by three young murderers who are all too willing to help. The gardener turns up again and David does nothing to prevent the young men from taking him for a Tutsi and taking the inevitable action. At last he has done something he can really be ashamed of. From then on, the narrator abandons his principles, leaving Kigali with the killers for a refugee camp, where he joins in the general corruption to make enough money to get out.
Yet throughout the novel, the narrator’s voice is constantly accusing Switzerland of complicity with the regime, and ultimately if unwittingly with the genocide itself. The Swiss send a radio expert, who teaches the Rwandans how to make interesting broadcasts – which then call for mass murder. The Swiss provide pencils, telephones and streets to prove their own integrity.
“…That’s why we gave them the pencil with which they wrote the death lists, that’s why we laid the telephone lines through which they gave the murder command, and that’s why we built the streets on which the murderers drove to their victims.”
The efficiency and organisation the Swiss admire in the Rwandans is what enables them to kill each other so systematically, the angry David points out.
The narrator rarely describes actual acts of violence. Apart from a few exceptions uttered by other characters, the Hutus and Tutsis are called “tall” and “short” people, rebels and government forces. AIDS is “the plague”. A number of allegories capture Hohl’s relationship with the people of Kigali – most prominently, an injured buzzard lands in his garden and he refuses to let his staff kill it, despite Agathe’s impatience with him over the issue. Instead, he drives around town looking for roadkill to feed it with. Almost ending up in a fight over a dead dog, he arranges for his adversary to bring him more. The next day he finds a freshly killed animal on his doorstep – that he had seen alive with the deliveryman the day before. During the hundred days he stops feeding the buzzard but it manages to recover, its feathers getting sleeker by the day. Horrified when he realizes it has been feeding on human flesh, he immediately kills it with a machete.
The one time he does describe the violence, Bärfuss deliberately contrasts the horror with the gilded lives of the ex-pats. As David watches gorillas in the East, a group of children is brutally killed. In a single sentence, we go from David’s entranced contemplation to the children’s terror.
“Soon we had to leave, our half-hour was up, and while we climbed down the hill the men killed the children, the six girls and the little boy; while I was inspired by the wise beings of the mountain the men did to the girls what men have always done to girls, and when the news went around a few days later that the Blue Helmets had found them with deep wounds to the head, with crimson strangulation marks around their necks, it was not just the cruelty that horrified me, it was the glove that the murderers had dropped by the dead children, a glove like those the rebels wore.”
Bärfuss apparently spent two years researching the novel, gaining access to files from the Swiss development agency and talking to people who were in Kigali at the time. He says the book was prompted by his anger over his country’s role in supporting the corrupt dictatorship in Rwanda from 1963 on, and by their inability to react to the situation. He certainly doesn’t spare any of his characters – all of the Swiss in the book come off badly, even including Missland who saves his Tutsi wife’s family for the sake of her great arse. While other successful films and novels on the subject of the Rwandan genocide seem to rely on a “good guy” saving lives under horrific conditions, love prevailing amidst the terror, and so on, there is no ray of hope here. And although Bärfuss doesn’t address Switzerland’s role in the Holocaust directly, it looms large in the background of this angry tale of a genocide allowed to happen.
I was very moved and impressed by this book, and I really hope it makes its way into English translation. Publishers can get hold of a sample translation from the German Book Office. There are certainly lessons to be learned here for readers from outside of Switzerland, as Bärfuss includes a great deal of material on the background to the Rwandan conflict, the role of the Belgians, the UN, etc. Perhaps it is time for a more literary approach to the subject than those already available in English, and this is certainly that.