- - Friday, April 27, 2012

By Naomi Benaron
Algonquin Books, $24.95, 360 pages

Most Americans may not know much about the Rwandan genocide that occurred over a few months in 1994. And Naomi Benaron’s first novel, “Running the Rift,” does little to shed light on the historical, economic and political factors that led Rwandan Hutus to kill 500,000 to 1 million Tutsis and those sympathetic to them.

But with complex characters and a heart-rending story, the book does serve to humanize the conflict. Ms. Benaron’s protagonist is Jean Patrick Nkuba, a Tutsi, who strives to become an Olympic runner - and perhaps even the first Rwandan to earn a medal at the games. The book begins roughly a decade before Rwanda’s president is assassinated, the event that catalyzed the killings.

As a young child, Jean Patrick hones his love of running with encouragement from his older brother, Roger, whom he races for practice. Jean Patrick is also determined to succeed in school, something that his father, Francois, who was a prefect at a boarding school, encourages. But when Jean Patrick is a young boy, Francois is killed in an automobile accident, and Jean Patrick’s family has to move into his Uncle Emmanuel’s house.

Uncle Emmanuel, a financially insecure fisherman, views the brewing conflict within Rwanda vastly differently from the way Francois did. Francois thought the Hutus’ killing of Tutsis would stay in the past - decades before the 1994 massacre, violence and discrimination forced many Tutsis into exile. In contrast, Uncle Emmanuel thinks the country’s problems are far from over and urges Jean Patrick and his siblings to be wary.

The first hint of ethnic tensions in “Running the Rift” occurs when a group of unknown assailants fling rocks through the windows at Jean Patrick’s home, shouting, “Tutsi snakes!” Jean Patrick explains after the incident that he did not know the meaning of the word Tutsi until his first day of school, when the teacher asked for all the Tutsi students to stand.

Jean Patrick tries to understand the chaotic events he sees, often applying the scientific principles he has read in his late father’s journal or was taught in school. One of those principles is “a body in motion remains in motion.” By using that particular reference and similar ones, Ms. Benaron adds an air of inevitability to the events. Despite this, Jean Patrick and the other characters still have hope the United States or other Western nations will step in and prevent the violence. However, readers know better: President Clinton would later say he regretted failing to take action to prevent the massacre.

Ms. Benaron carefully reveals the complexity of Jean Patrick’s feelings toward the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a group of exiles who seek to overthrow the Rwandan government. He sometimes questions the RPF’s actions and even blames the exiles occasionally for the unraveling of Rwanda’s society. Ms. Benaron also does a fine job of describing the mixed feelings that Jean Patrick has about being a Tutsi and the disadvantages he faces because of his ethnicity. At times he acknowledges his identity with great pride - for example, when Hutu Power members storm his classroom and ask any Tutsis to stand, he hears his Uncle Emmanuel’s admonishment to “Be proud” and stands in defiance.

At other times, he laments the lot that the Tutsis have been given, saying that “being Tutsis was a curse.”

Ms. Benaron further explores these feelings through Jean Patrick’s relationship with his track coach. The coach takes Jean Patrick under his wing - but he also makes negative comments about Tutsis, leaving Jean Patrick hurt and confused. This attitude leaves readers wondering what the coach will do once the genocide breaks out.

The coach also arranges for Jean Patrick to acquire a Hutu identity card, something that could help him navigate a society that is becoming increasingly more hostile toward Tutsis. However, Jean Patrick contemplates what it would mean to accept such an offer.

Several other supporting characters come alive through Ms. Benaron’s descriptions and portrait of pre-genocide Rwanda. One of Jean Patrick’s good friends, Daniel, is a Hutu who sticks by Jean Patrick as things escalate. And despite the ugliness unfolding around him, Jean Patrick falls in love with Bea, a politically active fellow college student.

Ms. Benaron’s wonderful descriptions of Daniel as fun-loving and Bea as strong and passionate make it easy for the reader to hope events will turn out well for them. Another friend of Jean Patrick’s is an American geology professor, Jonathan, who comes to Rwanda before the genocide unfolds to teach. Jonathan seems to symbolize all the Western countries that were either ignorant of the rising tensions in Rwanda or simply looked the other way.

It would have added something to the book if Ms. Benaron had included more historical context to explain why the RPF and other exiles rose up against the government. This would have given the reader a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the events leading up to the genocide and then the eventual massacre. Similarly, readers who are unfamiliar with Rwandan geography will often find themselves scurrying to a map to help them understand Jean Patrick’s frequent travels between his home, the university he attends and other locations.

When Ms. Benaron finally reaches the events of 1994, her descriptions are vivid and disturbing. One encounter in particular is sure to stick with readers, as it poignantly illustrates the ease with which neighbors turned against neighbors. When returning to his university, Jean Patrick runs into a student he met recently. During that first meeting, she had preached tolerance and acceptance. However, upon this second meeting, the student is wearing a cap that bears a logo for the Hutu extremist party. When Jean Patrick questions this, she replies, “Times change. We have banded together for the common Hutu good. What do you want?”

Overall, “Running the Rift” is a fine novel with wonderful and complex characters who will draw in readers. While this is a fictional account of one Rwandan family, it undoubtedly parallels numerous real life stories. Readers seeking a detailed account of the reasons behind the genocide should look elsewhere. But those wanting a story they can connect to will greatly appreciate Ms. Benaron’s work.

Jackie Stewart is a freelance writer in New York.

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