There are some books that are hard to review because of the weight of tragedy they contain. There are also times when it’s hard to recommend books because, no matter how important their subject matter, the more details given, the less appealing the book is going to sound to those who, like me, mostly read for entertainment, enjoyment and escapism. With these conditions in mind, I’m still going to try to review and recommend ‘Cockroaches’ by Scholastique Mukasonga, newly translated by Jordan Stump and published by Archipelago Books.
Mukasonga was born in 1950s Rwanda. She was three years old when ‘the first images of terror were etched into my memory.’ This was during the 1959 pogroms against the Tutsis during which the family home was destroyed. As a foretaste of what will become a theme throughout the memoir, when Mukasonga went back as an adult to see what remained ‘An old woman came running towards me from the banana grove, grumbling: Who is this stranger? What’s she doing prowling around the hut? … Cosma? Cosma, yes, she remembered him, or she’d heard about him. But she wasn’t there the day my house was destroyed, she was sick, or maybe she was getting married. Why bring all that up again? It was so long ago. Had I come to drive her out of her little house?’
This is a short memoir, dealing with Mukasonga’s own comparatively sheltered experiences. After a murderous riot in her school, she and her brother walked to Burundi where they found a space in a refugee camp and avoided the militant activists who wanted to organise a Tutsi return to Rwanda, ‘only in our studies, we thought, could we find refuge, and perhaps later revenge: no matter what, it was vital that we stay in school.’ As refugees, several of her family escaped, some others even survived the subsequent massacres. The rest were all murdered while Mukasonga was living abroad, unable to return and powerless to help. ‘Cockroaches’ is a searing narrative of loss, and while the recording of names and the education of readers may be important it is clear that there is no way such efforts can in any way overwrite the devastation that occurred.
Earlier this year, I read ‘Wild Swans‘ and was equally moved and impressed by what it taught me about China’s Cultural Revolution. ‘Cockroaches’ belongs beside this book as a memoir of a terrible episode in world history. It is an important reminder that just because stories don’t appear on the news doesn’t mean they’ve gone and leave no legacy or trauma. It also has important things to say about such nation wide crimes against humanity, from the denial of all witnesses and participants to the widening scope of ‘”ethnic” madness‘ affecting Hutus as well as Tutsis, ‘in Rwanda as in Burundi.’ ‘Cockroaches’ is heart-wrenching and haunting; it is a book I highly recommend, not least because it is explicitly framed as a survivor testimony. In the prologue we’re told how Mukasonga remembers the dead ‘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 darkness and the silence.’ Through reading we can help in the mission to prevent names and people from being written out of history. It is a small act, but a powerful argument for reading this book.
I received my copy of ‘Cockroaches’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.