2 October 2016

Gaël Faye: Petit pays (2016)

Petit pays is Gaël Faye's first novel, which has got through to the first selection of the Goncourt (along with fifteen other novels). It's reception has been quite spectacular, and this copy of it which I've just read is the second printing, which took place in September 2016, a month after the release of the first edition. Already, as the band across it reads, it has scooped the Prix du Roman Fnac for this year.

This novel isn't an autobiography, although it has strong autobiographical elements. Like Faye, the first person narrator Gaby is born in Burundi, his father being French and his mother a Rwandan refugee from the troubles in 1963. Like the author, Gaby would be about thirty-four today. But the book is largely set when Gaby was ten and eleven, coping with the problems of being an exile in a foreign country, coping as a child living in an adult world struggling to understand the politics, the insanity of the rift between the Hutu and the Tutsi peoples, who share the same land, religion, language, but as far as Gaby's father can see the only other differences are that the Tutsi minority is taller with smaller noses.

Much of the novel is concerned, then, with Gaby's interpretation of the world around him, maturing before his time, his childhood pranks with the local schoolkids, the rift between his parents, and also the horror of his mother experiencing the loss of many of her family on her brief return to Rwanda, of the political split in Burundi itself.

And this is all told with a remarkable freshness, against an exotic African geographical backcloth in which the atmosphere of the continent ineluctably seeps through the layers of violence. In spite of what the novelist Yann Moix said about the novel on On n'est pas couché – and this was admittedly his only minor flaw in a work he found 'uncriticisable' – I disagree that it is 'lacking in humour': Cyrano de Bergerac seen by the schoolkids as a Hutu? Not funny? This is a superb first novel by Gaël Faye, and if he concentrates on writing as much as he has formerly concentrated on his singing, he may well be able to produce something as good or even better. His chances for the Goncourt? I'll just wait until it happens, or otherwise.

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