Sunday, May 4, 2008

Book Review: The Oldest Orphan

Written by Tierno Monenembo as part of the Duty to Remember project coming out of the Rwandan Genocide, this is not a particularly light read. This is not to say that it’s not a quick read, topping out at 96 pages, or a well-written piece, but it is certainly not easy. The narrator is accessible, but deceptive and debatably monstrous. And, frankly, any book written about genocide should be difficult—if it’s easy you’re doing it wrong.

The narrator, Faustin Nsenghimana, is 15 years old at the time of the narration, making him a newly-minted 10 year old boy at the time of the actual genocide. His story is one of brutal survival, of what he felt he had to do to continue to exist in his world, be it as it may. By alternating between reflection, memory and flashback, the story unfolds with such tact that one is never able to forget that Faustin is a victim, but becomes monstrous himself. Perhaps this is the cruelest consequence of war—the living casualty.

At the outset, the reader knows that Faustin is living out the short remainder of his life awaiting a death sentence in the Kigali central prison. What one doesn’t know until the bitter end is what first set him on his path—the manner of his parents’ death and his mutilated survival. By constantly pulling the reader back and forth between being horrified by Faustin and heartbroken by his plight, the author skillfully evades the temptation to make a saint of his narrator and with the same hand deepens the reader’s understanding of the tragedy.

In a number of marked ways, the work thematically resembles Camus’ The Stranger. Beyond the fact that both narrators are ultimately sentenced to death and they both death with the death of the mother, there are certain other elements that pull out a comparison. However, Monenembo’s descriptions are infinitely more graphic and The Oldest Orphan lacks the sense of release of tension that one gets at the end of The Stranger. While this is quite possibly deliberate, as the genocide has not gone away or been dealt with, it leaves a lasting effect on the reader.

While I would certainly recommend this short yet heavy piece of fiction, I would do so with a cautionary air—don’t treat it as a summer read, beach book or rainy afternoon solace. It is certainly none of these things. As such, it is absolutely worth a read.

Ergo: 3.5 on the 4.0 lps (literary point scale)

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