One String Guitar
A Novel
Mona de Vestel
(Harvard Square Editions)
The Rwandan genocide was a mass slaughter of the Tutsi in Rwanda by members of the Hutu majority government. An estimated 500,000 - 1,000,000 Rwandans were killed during the 100-day period from April 7 to mid-July 1994, constituting as many as 70% of the Tutsi and 20% of Rwanda's total population.

The widespread slaughter of Rwandans ended when the Tutsi-backed and heavily armed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) led by Paul Kagame took control of the country. An estimated 2,000,000 Rwandans, mostly Hutus, were displaced and became refugees.

The root of the difference between the Tutsi and the Hutus came about as the usual colonial gift from the usual colonialists - - - in this case, the Belgians, who took over Rwanda at the end of WWI. For those not up on their colonial history, the king of Belgium had developed a strong affection for brutalizing Africans in the early part of the 20th century. King Leopold conceived the system of chopping off the hands of workers in rubber plantations who were thought to be stealing, or lazy, or both. No court; no trial. His soldiers, with a machete, dispensed what was then known as "summary justice."

The governance of Rwanda was further enhanced by the high art developed by the Europeans of seeking out minorities in the country and then, by favoring first one then the other, pitting them against each other. In Rwanda, this was the Hutus and the Tutsis.

By the time the Belgians were forced to check out in 1960, the two indigenous peoples had become virulent enemies. Their hate is the key to the early pages of One String Guitar.

At the time of the departure of the Belgians, Francine and Fidèle are forced to leave their house in Kigali because of their Tutsi family ties. "Every Tutsi man, woman and child will be hunted down and killed if the Hutu militia take over the government," is the word, and we readers are allowed to see the outcome of this. Indeed, the readers of One String are subject to what those of us in the book biz call "UHH:" an Unlimited History of Horrors. From page 85 on, Ms. de Vestal lets us see Tutsi men being killed, Tutsi children being terrorized, starved, and murdered, and Tutsi women being raped.

This is Francine, just after seeing her husband shot in the back at a checkpoint manned by a squad of Hutu militia (all this taking place in front of her three children):

    He kicked me in the side. Something snapped, this little sound of branches snapping inside me. I felt a sharp pain in my ribs. I knew that he has broken my bones. I said nothing. I just lay there. They tore off my clothes. They tore off my clothes and the young one was laughing again. He was done drinking his beer, and he pushed the older one out of the way.

    "Let me stick this insider her," he said holding the bottle up. It was broken. I would die in that place with these men while my children were alone. I thought about the children and I closed my eyes Dear God, who art in heaven. I heard God laughing at me . . .

    "I'm first," one of them said. He tore his body into mine. Nothingness engulfed me. I felt no pain. I felt no fear. I kept my eyes closed. He said nothing. When he was done, he was off me. I knew the young one was going to be next. He was just a boy; something of an animal in him too. He landed on me, and spit in my face. He punched me in the face. I opened my eyes, involuntarily. I wanted to die. God, don't save me. Let me go fast. God was not with me that day.

    "When I am done with you, I am going to take you to the mass grave with the others and I will kill you. I will cut you up," the boy said as he ripped into me.

    With each word. he pressed harder and faster, grunting like an animal. I tried to see the others but I couldn't. I didn't know if they were there. I closed my eyes. Then he was done.

    He kicked me in the face. My mouth bled. He took the broken Primus beer bottle and brought it close to my face lashing me with it. I heard myself screaming.

    One of them kicked him out of the way.

    "This one is not going to make it," he said seeing all the blood I had lost. His eyes filled with disgust as if he'd come upon a slaughtered animal rotting in the sun.

This quote is fairly long, and I expect that you, like I, would be wishing that the author could soon move on to other things. Perhaps a view of the moon rising, or a sketch of the surrounding hills.

Don't hold your breath, though. This is just the beginning of this book's UHH. Over the following pages we will be dipped back into violence, random cruelty, shock, brute force, and despoliation. And, not satisfied with the violence in Rwanda we will, by the end of the book, somehow make the transition from Rwanda to the far west of the United States, specifically, to the Lakota Reservation at Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee.

Here, Edgar Owl Feather will be told by the native American Felicia of a recent murder of a brother on the reservation. "He didn't cry," she whispered. "Raymond Yellow Thunder didn't cry when they threw him in the American Legion Hall. Some say he was already dead when his naked body landed on the rough cement floor, but others say he was still breathing . . . No one raised a hand against the two men who'd just tossed the body of a naked man in the hall. Some people laughed, women giggled under their breath."

§   §   §

Being a book reviewer is, at times, admittedly, no piece of cake. Sometimes we have to make sacrifices, go to the depths, go far beyond our personal comfort area in order to pay due homage to humanity and literacy. For that reason, I usually don't give up on a book when I have much invested in it. But then, on the other hand, sometimes we reviewers convince ourselves that we just shudda stayed in bed.

With this one, I did just that. I stayed in bed and played with my computer a bit after dropping the book; looked out the window at a gorgeous Hummingbird Canela (Amazilia rutila) who had, despite all this blood and plunder, managed to find my feeder, just there outside my window. So I was able to lay my copy of One String Guitar to the side, somehow was not able to pick it up again.

§   §   §

We're not sure where Ms. de Vestel learned this stuff. I mean she certainly knows how to push the words around. But it set me wondering if she had been studying at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and if the school has on its list of special writing classes one marked Appall & Gross Out-2a. If so, they taught her well.

De Vestel has certainly done her homework in the literature of genocide, with further accompanying violence to body and soul on the rez. At the same time, there does seem to be a lack of what some call subtlety. Is it possible that along with the discipline of being fictionally uncouth, the IWW had at the same time a class on Discrimination and Couth? Is it possible that Ms. de Vestal had the flu during the evening seminars on moderation in creativity?

§   §   §

What our author has failed to do, alas, is to study her literary heirs. In the middle of the carnage of "MacBeth" we are given a reprieve with a session of Elizabethan comic byplay in the person of a drunken porter. Right after the bloody murder of Duncan, he hears a knocking.

    knock, knock! Who's there, i' the name of
    Beelzebub? Here's a farmer, that hanged
    himself on the expectation of plenty: come in
    time; have napkins enow about you; here
    you'll sweat for't.

Or there is Don Juan. After our unwilling sailors suffer through a week-long seige of starvation in the longboat, Lord Byron lets the castaways sate themselves, somewhat unwillingly, on the corpulent bodies of their fellows. Relief, though, comes quickly in the form of an aside: we learn that the survivors have made a conscious decision not to relish the master's mate's thigh because he had, in his earlier revels in a whorehouse, turned up with

"a small present made to him at Cadiz,
by general subscription of the ladies."

Even Camus, no stranger to the horrors of the French Occupation, eases his tale of the toll of the dead and the dying in The Plague with a character who, daily, writes and rewrites but the single first sentence of his novel-to-be; and another who lolly-gags over the stairs of the courtyard to spit on a prized cat (he's dismayed when the cat disappears).

And there's always Boccaccio. In The Decameron, after discoursing on the pestilence of the plague, he has his aristocrats offer to retreat to their country houses.

    There shall we heare the pretty birds sweetly singing, see the hilles and plaines verdantly flouring; the Corne waving in the field like the billowes of the Sea, an infinite store of goodly trees, and the Heavens more fairely open to us.

§   §   §

Not long ago, in our review of another UHH novel (Ma, He Sold Me for a Few Cigarettes), we wrote,

    The narrative must be in balance. The wretched and the wonderful, the hideous and the happy, the drear and the delightful. There has to be a certain delicacy (if I may use that word) even in face of the worst opprobrium. If one tempers horror, it can, in an expert's hand, make it even more horrific. But an overdose floods the system, leaves but despair behind, turns us listless and disinterested.

We then suggested that the consumer "has a choice. Unlike to the victim, we readers can refuse to subject ourselves to ever more non-stop stomach-churning violence. We can merely lay the book aside and forget it, to say, 'I don't want to put up with her (or me) being slapped around anymore. I'm done with it.'"

It's important that we are talking not about reality, nor the picturing of reality - - - genocides may be characterized as "reality" in spades; but we can also suggest that the novelist of reality has another job, along with the license to depict the world as she would want. She may do it as powerfully as she may please, but should know that the unremitting presence of savagery, inhumanity and death does not make for artistry. Rather, it lumps the didatic such as to destroy the artistic.

The title of Ms. de Vestel's book might be our best clue to all this. There might be somewhere in this book some music but - - - overall - - - it is but one note coming from a one-string guitar.

--- L. Lark
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