Small Country or Petit Pays by Gael Faye has one thing that makes it stand out: authenticity. And that’s good enough for me.
The author is a singer and a rapper but don’t let that put you off. This is his first and so far only novel. Faye said the book is not autobiographical, yet the narrator and main character is called Gaby, who has a French father and Rwandan mother (as did Faye). He is growing up in the 1990s in Burundi at the time of the Rwandan genocide (as did Faye), and he eventually ends up a refugee in France (you guessed it).
All of which matters not at all, except when it comes to writing his next book, if he ever does.
It was written in French as Petit Pays and translated into English as Small Country. I’ve read both (ahem!) and it’s a good translation.
The themes are meaty: racism, how and why this can spill over into murder and eventually genocide and the effect this has on the innocents who witnessed it. Throw in his eventual status as a refugee and you have a book for the 21st century and its problems.
This is all done through the eyes of an 11-year-old child, or perhaps more accurately an adult remembering it as he saw it as a child. Those themes are therefore set out simply and boldly. Such a technique worked quite well for Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The book starts with a few sentences on what caused the majority Hutu people in Rwanda to slaughter the minority Tutsi. They share the same country, the same language, the same God. The only thing that sets them apart is the shape of their nose.
Gaby has a gang of friends and they fall into the same pattern: another boy arrives on the scene and is hated (at first) simply because he is an outsider.
It all rings true in a very clear way.
Many reviewers have objected to the fact that Gaby is usually one step away from the atrocities. For example, his cousins are killed but we only hear about it indirectly through his mother. It’s the same with many of the violent acts, but that’s a quality. In a good horror story we only need to see a glimpse of the gore. It’s left to our imaginations to fill in the gaps and it’s all the stronger for it.
Like Sydney Bridge Upside Down, with which it shares a subject of an adult recollection of childhood (if nothing else), Petit Pays only reaches its full power in the final pages. Again, not a fault. Too much of modern art depends on immediate impact. I believe the more effort a reader has to put into reading a book, the more they get out of it. However, the world has gone in the opposite direction and today there is so much media it is impossible to stand out unless you kick them right where it hurts on the first page.
Nevertheless, Faye appreciates that readers have a short attention span, so it’s a short book. That’s why it has a slightly shallow feel, shared by some other modern books I have reviewed, including The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and A Visit From the Goon Squad.
Small Country is good, but it’s not To Kill a Mockingbird. Gaby and his mother are brilliantly created characters, but the minor characters don’t have enough space to breathe.
Faye writes of his own experiences and feelings, but To Kill a Mockingbird is that and a whole lot more.
Nevertheless, it’s unfair to compare it to one of the classics of the 20th century. Small Country is authentic and passionate, and that’s all you need.
A quick word on literary prizes, because Small Country has won a few of those in France. I don’t think many outside the book trade would seriously argue that a string of gongs is an indication of quality. For example, I’ve only heard of seven of the Nobel laureates who won between 1901 and 1939 and the eminent judges back then did not feel Henrik Ibsen was quite good enough. (Although hindsight can be very useful.)
It’s even worse today when books are expressly written for the purposes of prize-winning as a marketing technique.
Thankfully, Small Country or Petit Pays does not fall into that category; Faye wrote the book that was in him. It’s great when the prize judges appreciate that but I still prefer writers who upset the status quo. But even Dostoyevski had a stamp issued in his name, albeit 56 years after his death and a mere 106 years from the moment he was condemned to death by firing squad.
It takes time for the cream to rise to the surface.