Saturday, June 9, 2012

Running the Rift

A review of the novel Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012.

This novel set in Rwanda at the time of genocide aptly evokes the pernicious slide of that society into hatred, violence and mass murder.  The story is told by recounting the life of Jean Patrick a Tutsi youngster endowed with the gift of speed.   He first appears as a child, the son of a teacher, but one who already feels discrimination because of his ethnicity.  All is magnified when Jean Patrick’s father dies and his family is compelled to move in with an uncle.  Life in rural Rwanda is accurately described as are the emotions arising from incidences of ethnic animosity.  Some folks are good, others not.

The story advances when Jean Patrick’s running abilities are noticed. As a teenager and then as a university student he gets groomed for the Olympic Games.  Being  a minor celebrity he meets President Habyarimana,  who is alternately portrayed as a protector  and persecutor of Tutsi.  Striving to stay above the ethnic fray causes mixed emotions in Jean Patrick who vows that his personal objective is not ethnic politics, but running.  The coach who pushes Jean Patrick to greatness has a mysterious side, yet he stands by his protégé, even at the last.  

Jean Patrick meets and falls in love with a Hutu activist while at university.  Their romance is doomed as the ethnic rancor engulfs the nation and spirals out of control.  Our hero narrowly escapes death and finally finds some solace years afterward.

This novel lays out the looming genocide and impact it had on families- before and after - in detail.   For readers who know exactly what is coming next, the story might move slowly.  It did for me. The setting, however, is impeccable and the use of Kinyarwanda, descriptions of towns, foods and local traditions accurate. The only discrepancy I found was the allegation that one could travel by boat across Lake Kivu to Burundi.  In fact, the nation across the lake is the then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Movement to Rwanda’s southern neighbor Burundi requires an overland jaunt as the Ruzizi River is not navigable.

Running the Rift is an intense novel that succeeds in its effort to educate readers about the genocide and to evoke at a personal level the enormous human cost of that tragedy.