M. René Bradshaw reviews Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga

Translated from the French by Jordan Stump (Archipelago Books, 2016)

The problem with most memorials and public remembrances marking strategic mass killings—war and genocide being the two major examples from the twentieth century—is that they cannot, and do not, individualize death. In the case of genocide, failing to return names or individual histories to victims can recur to genocide’s inherent ambition to depersonalize, collectivize, and forget. As the trauma researcher Sara Guyer compellingly suggests, the genocide memorials in Rwanda, including Nyamata, that preserve and expose the bones of the dead reflect a complicated, unbalanced distinction between commemorating the organized extermination of a population and commemorating “death in general.” In this circular logic, the memorials inadvertently reveal anew the necessity of an impossible testimony—the testimony of the dead.

Where are they now? In the memorial crypt of the church in Nyamata, nameless skulls among all the other bones? In the bush, beneath the brambles, in some mass grave that has yet to be found? Over and over, I write and rewrite their names in the blue-covered notebook, trying to prove to myself that they existed; I speak their names one by one, in the dark and the silence. 

So begins Cockroaches, Scholastique Mukasonga’s story of her Tutsi family and their struggle to escape Rwanda’s ethnic violence. Even with the most influential books, you cannot usually tell all that much about their direction from a first sentence alone—for instance, you can’t necessarily distinguish the aims and aspirations of a “great classic” from those of a contemporary novel by its first sentence. “For a long time, I used to go to bed early . . . ” Now, that line does not exactly fire like a pistol. How could you guess, from the words themselves, that that’s the beginning of Swann’s Way? Conversely, the opening sentences of Cockroaches permeate the trajectory of the narrative like warning shots. Evoking the names of her massacred family members, Mukasonga dedicates this book to “everyone who died at Nyamata in the genocide” and “for all those of Nyamata who are named in this book and the many more who are not, for the few who have the sorrow of surviving.” From its first pages, Mukasonga’s remembering self-traces a trail of gunsmoke, leading to a backstory of the remembered dead for whom she is compelled to speak.

More compendious than it is confessional, Cockroaches assumes an on-the-scene or in-the-mind tense of storytelling, making the distance between Mukasonga’s past and present seem minimal. The titles of chapters provide historical cornerstones for understanding the events that facilitated the 1994 genocide and locate the tragic epic of Mukasonga’s family within this history. “The Late 1950s: A Childhood Disturbed” begins in the Gikongoro province, on the outskirts of the Nyundgwe forest, where Mukasonga was born. Over the next four decades, Mukasonga, her parents, and her six brothers and sisters undergo deportation to Nyamata (“1960: Internal Exile”) and witness the first legislative elections in Rwanda (“‘1961–1964’: ‘Democratic’ Exclusion”), which solidified Hutu supremacy and ushered in a new cycle of conflict and violence. In April 1994, members of the Hutu majority, directed by extremists in the capital of Kigali, murdered as many as 800,000 people. The genocide spread throughout the country with staggering rapidity and brutality as the Hutu Power government incited citizens to take up arms against the inyenzi—“cockroaches”—a metaphor used to demonize their Tutsi neighbors. In her adopted home of France, Mukasonga glances at a photograph of her family taken on the day of her youngest sister’s wedding. She writes, “They’re going to die. Maybe they already know it.”

Under constant armed surveillance marked by soldiers invading villages, unannounced, under the pretext of deterring Tutsi insurgence, Mukasonga and her family attempt to establish a permanent family home in the scrubland of Gitagata. In the midst of unnerving tension, the everyday joys of girlhood and community life are revealed to us: “And then others were strangely peaceful, as if our tormentors had forgotten us. Ordinary childhood days, few and far between.” Rallying the entire family to make banana beer, trailing elephants on the road as an acceptable strategy for arriving late to school, fetching water with cousins, and discovering the private pleasures of reading (“Sometimes I dreamed of an impossible thing: having a book all to myself.”): these small adventures of childhood, safeguarded by loving parents who are devoted to the advancement and education of their children despite unending persecution and poverty, allow us to come to understand how living is possible, how the family unit can sustain itself.

But with grievous wonderment—never self-pitying, though sometimes bordering on a sort of numbed explication—Mukasonga sprinkles crumbs for us to navigate the preconditions that facilitated “1994: The Genocide, the Long-Awaited Horror.” From 1963 to 1964, the Hutu-dominated government in Rwanda massacred thousands of Tutsis following the failed Tutsi revolt (“a real foretaste of the 1994 genocide”). In 1973, Mukasonga escaped across the border into Burundi with the aid of her brother’s best friend. She necessarily notes: “He wouldn’t be killed that morning. He would be killed twenty years later.” In the same year, General Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu from the north, seizes power in a military coup to become the third president of Rwanda. Jordan Stump’s translation of the original French allows Mukasonga’s sentences to ring like completed, present instants. The sentences are sparse, distinct, like clipped phrases, their reality is the act that they contain, and they bleed into one another to give the impression of continuous inevitability: “Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide. And I alone preserve the memory of it. And that’s why I am writing this.” Genocide does not happen by chance, or out of spur-of-the-moment collective madness. If we approach Cockroaches expecting a historical investigation of the rise of the 1994 genocide and the outrageous lack of humanitarian intervention, or an inquiry into the origins and nature of evil, we ask both too much and too little of it.

Here, perhaps, is the advantage of Mukasonga having written Cockroaches many years after the events recounted (the original French version was published in 2006.). Her recollection, which does not seem to be worn away by time and controversy, also admits the necessity of taking a long—though by no means subsuming—view of historical events.

I would be doing a disservice to the book not to mention that it discloses some of the most unspeakable crimes of which I have ever heard. In this way, Mukasonga adopts the traumatic experiences—and thus the memories—of her family members as individuated events, inscribing them into the larger story. She discovers how her youngest sister, Jeanne, and her brother-in-law, Pierre, were murdered, insisting on describing, matter-of-factly, the harrowing details of their deaths. (Jeanne’s pregnant womb is dissected with a machete, and her perpetrators beat her with her own fetus; we assume that she bleeds to death. Pierre is imprisoned in a town hall, and for several days, his captors cut pieces of his body off, one by one. In an especially sadistic turn, his daughter, Mukasonga’s niece, is forced to bring him his daily meals. Every day, she would see another piece of her father—a finger, an arm, a leg—gone.)

Still, her quest to discover the final fate of her parents and siblings is truly brought to the fore during a visit to her old family home, now nonexistent, in Gitagata. There, she encounters her parents’ former neighbor, a Hutu, who is still living next door. At first, the neighbor does not seem to recognize Mukasonga, though her parents had once reluctantly invited him to a party to celebrate her homecoming a decade beforehand. Then, when he recalls her father’s name, he begins to ask for Mukasonga’s forgiveness, but he suddenly stops, claims that he isn’t a murderer, rejects having even witnessed the massacre, and then flatly ends with full-blown denial: “No one died here.” Here, Mukasonga’s original search for answers doubles back upon itself and ends at a juncture in this moment of senselessness and paralysis: “I’m no longer listening. Was it him who murdered my parents, who’d at least played a part? Was it someone else? I’ll never know.” The quietness of her simple desire to know what happened, so calm in its rejection of the consolations of blame or despair—she is offered only the abstention and guilt of a potential perpetrator in turn—is distinctly heartbreaking. Like many survivors, Mukasonga knows where her parents were killed, but not how they were killed or where their bones lie. The neighbor represents living access to memory but also refuses it, making clear that the demand for absent testimonies across Rwanda still remains.

What slave narratives, refugee accounts, and Holocaust and genocide memoirs have in common is that, in them, the stakes of “survival” are much higher than ever before. Each of these witness memoirs has to bear an awful burden: to stand in for the thousands of memoirs that will never be written. Cockroaches is a physically small book with a small, soft voice that whispers to us of the thousands of unnamed, unwritten memoirs, reaffirming their existence, refusing to forget: it is both witness literature and, likely against Mukasonga’s own intentions, a survival epic. (“That was the mission our parents had assigned André and me, it’s true. We were supposed to survive, and now I knew what the sorrow of survival meant.”) For Mukasonga, staying alive meant the burden of bearing witness to the event and the duty to disclose it. She has lived in France for more than two decades; she has two sons; she is a practicing social worker. (Her brother, André, with whom she escaped to Burundi, became a doctor.) By her own account, her life is marked by stability and a conviction “to keep the memory alive, so the family would go on, somewhere else.”

But what if survival is not the equivalent to redemption? In other words, with its strong narrative trajectory and straightforward themes, how is the trauma-and-redemption memoir problematized when surviving and thriving—the presupposed mission—becomes a trauma unto itself? Mukasonga’s story also teaches us that survival itself can be just at the margins of tolerable existence: “Sometimes I hear that growl in France, in the street I don’t dare turn around, I walk faster, isn’t it that same roar, forever following me?”

We are left listening for bodies slithering through tall grasses in the night.