On Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga

Sebastian Sarti

Translated by Jordan Stump. Brooklyn, NY: Archipelago Books. 2016. 165 pages. $16.00.

As many authors do, Scholastique Mukasonga opens her memoir, Cockroaches, with a dedication, but hers has a much darker tinge than what one might expect. She gives a list of some of the thirty-seven family members killed during the Rwandan Genocide and closes it with the defeated line, “for all those of Nyamata who are named in this book and all many more who are not.” Names are particularly important in Cockroaches, which gains its title from the Kinyarwanda word Inyenzi, the term used to dehumanize Tutsis by naming them after the insects. Against the onrush of numbing numbers that often accompany atrocities—100 days, 500,000 to 1,000,000 dead, for instance—Mukasonga’s attention to those granular and indigestible names offers an alternative to the more antiseptic studies of the genocide and leaves us with an intentionally troubling book.

Like her novel, Our Lady of the Nile, Cockroaches skims across short, lucid scenes bound together by a bare-stripped voice of unforgiving specificity. In place of Our Lady of the Nile’s fiction, Cockroaches’s vignettes struggle toward autobiography, which accounts for its more cutting approach and less hopeful tone.

Having left Rwanda before 1994, Mukasonga has no first-hand account of the genocide’s climax, but she describes the discrimination she faced as a child, explaining that she and other Tutsi children had to fetch water in the village and pass young revolutionaries who laughed “at the little tears of the little snakes, the cockroaches, the Inyenzi.” The revolutionaries’ violent language comes loaded with violent action; they often beat up the boys and raped the girls. Delivered via Jordan Stump’s unencumbered translation, the writing seems effortless, and the fact that it doesn’t try to make the events horrific only magnifies their effect. Here as in elsewhere the prose is grounded in facts and is free of description, so the horror that arises from these passages comes not from some creative use of language but rather from the events themselves. These alone are more than enough.

Though the book consists of unadorned prose, Mukasonga occasionally departs from this bare voice. With just a slight shift in register, her nostalgic scenes deploy a more lyrical language, which underscores her childhood’s schizophrenic world where brutal discrimination coexisted with pastoral family moments. Mukasonga mentions the “truly happy days” spent working in the fields “close to the earth, to the peasants,” when she would listen to her mother’s stories and cry out “More! More!” at their end. She describes her mother’s effortful search for and use of rootstocks, the stories paired with their consumption. Scholastique would eat these foods and feel as if she were “tasting the magical food people eat in stories.” Through them she enters a world in which she needn’t live in fear because of her nose’s shape.

But Mukasonga doesn’t romanticize her youth. She tinges joyous moments not only with their contemporary blights but with the terror to come. Even when she recounts her mother’s magical foods and stories, she casts a pall over the memory:

Sometimes she spent the whole afternoon on the little patch of land she set aside for plants no one grew anymore. For her they were like the survivors of a happier time, and she seemed to draw a new energy from them. She grew them not for daily consumption but as a way of bearing witness to what was in danger of disappearing, what did disappear in the cataclysm of the genocide.

Having opened with Mukasonga awaking from a nightmare in present-day France, Cockroaches’s near-linear narrative comes to us by way of explicit memory seen through the cloud of 1994. She discusses her mother’s pride in Scholastique’s brother, Antoine, and his large family of nine children. The reason for this pride is both naïve and painful: her mother believes that such a large family would surely have survivors. With startling coldness, Mukasonga removes our own hopes for this: “Antoine, his wife Jeanne, his nine children, they were all killed. And nothing is left of them, not so much as a carved name into a cross, on a grave.”

By infusing the future into the past, Mukasonga constructs a narrative of retrospect, regret, and indelible survivor’s guilt. She describes meeting the old queen, Gicanda, and writes of her beauty and of how she greeted the students “like a good-hearted mother,” and then she forces the future upon us:

In 1994, the old woman was viciously attacked. I won’t describe how she was humiliated, raped, tortured. I want to remember only the woman who gave us milk, Gicanda, the queen with the beautiful face.

But she cannot have that pure memory, and the mention of what she doesn’t want to describe leaves us, like her, unable to think of the queen’s benevolence without knowing of her horrific death.

Yet Mukasonga undercuts even this dire plot. Since all the vignettes share in the oncoming tragedy, we’re tempted to look at their lives as processions toward atrocity, but she stresses the unimaginability of what was to come for those who lived it. As an adult, she returns to the fields where she and her family had lived, the same place where many of them died, and describes the vacuum they left: “It’s as if we never existed. And yet my family once lived there. Humiliated, afraid, waiting day after day for what was to come, what we didn’t have a word for: genocide.” The narrative we perceive of catapulting toward genocide forms in those hundred murderous days. Without our knowledge of their end, the threads she gives would not weave together. The fragments are not all subjugate to the outcome.

Through her emphasis on day-to-day life’s details, Mukasonga rejects attempts to theorize on the genocide’s political or cultural cause. In fact, the book’s most powerful chapter does away even with her short scenes; rather, it returns to her dedication and lists names of victims she knew. She exclaims, “I recited the names of all those who have no one left to mourn them . . . Rutabana, whose rice I so loved . . . Buregeya, who thought himself so handsome . . . Emma Mariya had married Bahia, a rich merchant in Nyamata. She’d raised some ten children. They were all killed, like her.” The stream of names and descriptions illuminates her true purpose in writing this book. It’s less to tell her story; the memoir serves as a personal record for the lost, the memories of whom are at risk of extinction as a result of the comprehensive destruction.

With this purpose in mind, it’s clear why she’d avoid the protective shimmer of fiction and why she wouldn’t use the literary techniques memoirs often deploy to dramatize the mundane. Though the genocide threatens to drown out all else, Mukasonga’s extraction of meaning and vitality from her memories’ smallest details gives nuance to even the most obvious horrors. That she doesn’t use this skill to soften the story but rather to cast so much in the genocide’s shadow leaves us with a cold comfort, but she accomplishes her goal and provides an unflinching testament to much of what the genocide almost obliterated—the customs and lives and people, both named and not.

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