I have been keen to read this book for some time. Small Country was published in 2016 in France and in French, and translated into English by Sarah Ardizzone in 2018. I saw it on the Book of the Month website and it immediately caught my eye. It’s not often that African literature — especially a novel focused on something as horrific as the Rwandan Genocide and the Burundian Civil War, both connected in their origins of ethnic conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi — finds a way into mainstream, popular book culture.
It was worth the wait. Small Country delivers a powerful, immersive, historical experience. I felt as if I were there, transported back to the early 1990s, growing up with Gaby, a silent witness to the terror and happiness of his childhood. We are not so far apart in age that his childhood feels foreign to me, and there is a common experience in living in former colonies, French or British, that pervades the postcolonial world. Faye’s prose helped a lot; I could smell the fruity air of tropical Burundi, sense the light dusting of brownish-red earth on my skin as Gaby and his crew ran down the roads of their neighbourhood, the scorching heat of the sun, a trickle of sweat run down my neck.
But of course, Gaby’s path and my own diverge wildly on the occasion of war. Faye’s portrayal of that period of time and conflict was palpable. By that point in the novel, the characters felt like friends: ordinary and familiar like those who populate our own worlds. They were likeable and hateful, annoying and lovable, flawed and perfectly so — and then they were thrown, involuntarily, into an unimaginable violence. Much like Gaby and his family and friends, the war approached slowly, then arrived suddenly. The effect is jarring — purposefully — on the reader. The events of the novel force the reader to wonder, “What if this were me? What would I do?”
The story follows the chronological path of Gaby’s life, a mixed-race boy of French and Rwandan parentage, growing up in Burundi. It spans his early life from about age four or five to the time of the Genocide, when he is a teenager and evacuated to France. The novel is one that revolves around the nuances of race and interracial relationships, the push and pull that is inherent in transcultural lives, and the desire for a sense of place when one is trapped in a Venn diagram of multiple belongings. Gaby’s mother is one of these out-of-place women, French by marriage and in part by design, but also Rwandan and not-Rwandan, Burundian by default and yet rejected by Burundians on account of her Rwandan origins. Gaby’s father also straddles multiple worlds, first as a colonial settler in a time when such settlements can no longer exist as they were; he is out-of-time, rather than out-of-place. Second, in the matter of class, Gaby’s father possesses status, but only on the African continent, not in France. Gaby, the protagonist of the novel, is also caught between worlds on account of his mixed-race, his socio-economic class as the son of a middle-lower-upper-class businessman, and because of his nationality being a French passport-holding Burundian. The characters exist in a kind of suspension. This uncertainty is, on the one hand, brought on by the war, but it existed before as well, as people in this community reconcile their ethnic history or their settler status with the new postcolonial order of things.
Small Country is about the loss of one place of belonging when another one exists. It is about loss of the things (including people and practices and languages) that bind us to one another and to ourselves. It is about how we individually must grapple with that loss, how we deal with it or how it deals with us. Every character in this novel loses something or someone (a spouse, a child, a family member, or themselves), gains something (freedom, independence, clarity of self, madness, grief), and plods onwards in life because there is no option to do otherwise. The reader cannot help but recognize their suffering and their experience.
Small Country is about refugees, both the kind we see in the news and the kind we do not see, those who occupy our own worlds and are, in a sense, “hidden in plain sight.” Faye presents to the reader a reflection of themselves, turning the refugee of the news into an all-too-familiar face, our own. Perhaps as we encounter refugees in our lives, those of the news-kind as well as others, we might find common ground with them on the basis of this shared humanity.