Courtemanche, Gil 1943-
Courtemanche, Gil 1943-
Born 1943, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; son of an insurance salesman; married, 2003; wife a journalist; children: one daughter.
Journalist for newspapers, radio, and television in Canada, 1962-85, including with newspaper Le Jour; also worked for La Presse, Quebec, Canada, and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.; freelance journalist, 1985-89; foreign correspondent and documentary filmmaker, 1989-99; Le Devoir, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, reporter, c. 2004. Producer and director, The Gospel of AIDS (documentary film), c. 1992.
Prix des Libraires, 2001, for Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali.
Douces colères: Journal, VLB Editeur (Quebec City, Quebec, Canada), 1989.
Chroniques internationales (essays), Editions du Boréal (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 1991.
Nouvelles douces colères, Editions du Boréal (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 1999.
Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali (novel), Editions du Boréal (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 2000, translated by Patricia Claxton as A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.
La seconde révolution tranquille: Démocratiser la démocratie, Editions du Boréal (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 2003.
Une belle mort (novel), Editions du Boréal (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 2005, translated by Wayne Grady as A Good Death, Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), 2006.
Plouk le raton laveur qui ne voulait pas laver, (children's book; title means "Plouk the Raccoon Who Did Not Like to Wash"), illustrated by Bruno St. Aubin, Les 400 Coups (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 2006.
Contributor to periodicals in Canada, England, and the United States. A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali has been translated into fourteen languages.
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali was adapted for film, c. 2006.
It is often very difficult for French Canadian authors who write in French to find translators and international audiences for their work. At first Gil Courtemanche faced the same struggle. Even after his first novel, Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali, became a best seller in his native province of Quebec, he had trouble persuading English and American publishers to translate it. Courtemanche ultimately found a translator and an American publisher, and his harrowing tale of Rwanda on the eve of genocide, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, has received a wide readership and warm reviews on both sides of the Atlantic. Shortly after turning sixty, Courtemanche—a longtime foreign correspondent for Canadian newspapers, radio, and television—found himself described in Maclean's as "Canada's newest and brightest literary star."
A maverick journalist since the age of nineteen, Courtemanche is known in Canada both for his coverage of Third World countries and for his reportage on politics in Quebec. In a profile for the Age, Courtemanche said that he offered to be a war correspondent in foreign countries early in his career. "I was kind of ignorant," he said. "I began to cover war because nobody wanted to go." A career that began with a vague sense of adventure blossomed into one of deep moral conviction—and sometimes outrage—as Courtemanche covered the AIDS epidemic in Africa, unrest in Haiti and Eastern Europe, and other dangerous assignments to countries most commonly overlooked on national newscasts in Canada and America. He made his first of five visits to Rwanda in 1989.
Courtemanche originally journeyed to Rwanda to make a documentary film, The Gospel of AIDS, about church workers who were attempting to stem the tide of HIV infection by distributing condoms. The journalist kept notes on his visit, including his impressions of the hotel in which he lodged, in a journal. It was only after the war in Rwanda, during which more than 800,000 Tutsi Rwandans were massacred, that Courtemanche began to contemplate portraying the dreadful event in fiction. He returned to his notebook and from it culled memories of friends who had become victims of the violence, others who had died of AIDS, and still others whose fates he did not know. Un dimanche à la piscine à Kigali was first published in Quebec in 2000.
An English translation, A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, followed in 2003. The novel's action revolves around an alienated Canadian journalist who seeks to understand how his Tutsi associates in Rwanda can go about their daily lives with apparent insouciance as the dual storm clouds of AIDS and genocide prepare to engulf and destroy them. The plot thickens when Valcourt, the journalist, falls in love with a hotel waitress named Gentille, whose mixed Hutu-Tutsi heritage virtually ensures that she will become a target of one faction or the other—or both. While Valcourt seeks safety for his lover and witnesses the death of some of his friends, he also must bear witness to the indifference of First World officials, from Canadian consuls to U.N. peacekeepers, in the face of an explosive situation. As Benoit Aubin put it in Maclean's, the novel is "at once an exotic love story and a sombre, politically toxic descent into the hell that was AIDS-plagued Kigali when the buildup to the horrible Rwanda genocide … was gathering momentum."
A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali drew praise for its graphic depiction of the Rwandan horrors, made more immediate by Courtemanche's creation of characters who perish in the conflict. London Times contributor Jennifer Byrne observed: "Gil Courtemanche has written the first novel of the twentieth century's last genocide and his characters, though clearly based on real people, are sufficiently wild and contradictory and defiantly human that one gets a sense of how it actually might have been." New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin praised Courtemanche's "journalist's unblinking eye and … appreciation of bitter irony" in a "haunting, graceful book." In the New York Times Book Review, Christopher Dickey called A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali a "wonderfully rich portrait of fear and love in the face of atrocity." Dickey also wrote of Courtemanche: "His position is that of many foreign correspondents: all he can do for those who die is write their epitaph. But in these pages, they survive." Observer contributor Sarah Emily Miano found the author at his best when denouncing not only the Hutu killers but also the international aid agencies that allowed the unrest to escalate. "This is where Courtemanche is most powerful," the critic maintained. "He's not afraid to question morality, nor to reveal the human condition in all its heinous inhumanity. The story is intense and gut-wrenching and, at his best, Courtemanche remains detached enough from the catastrophes and horrors to be both poetic and disquieting."
In his interview in the Age, Courtemanche explained how his Rwandan friends gave him leave to move on and enjoy his own life even though theirs were clearly in peril. "We think of ourselves as having only one life," he said. "If something goes wrong, you hear people say, 'This is the end of my life.' But when you live with Africans, their lives are finished every day. They don't know if they are going to live the morning after. They begin a new life every day, every week, every month."
The author has continued to write fiction, including the novel Une belle mort, which was published in English as A Good Death. The story focuses on the relationship between a son and his dying, elderly father, who has Parkinson's disease. The son does not like his extremely authoritarian father and often compares him to Stalin, yet he "looks at his father with a curious mixture of compassion and slightly clinical detachment," according to Florence Meney on the Radio Canada Web site. In the novel, Courtemanche ruminates on issues such as family relationships and assisted suicide. Courtemanche also wrote the children's book Plouk le raton laveur qui ne voulait pas laver. As the title suggests, the tale is about a raccoon who dislikes everything associated with washing. When the dirty raccoon is made fun of, he runs away and encounters other marginalized animals living in an old house, including a cow, a giraffe, and a snake. They are happy there until they are eventually made to leave by the local mayor.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Age (Melbourne, Australia), August 9, 2003, Jane Sullivan, "When Truth Is Plainer in Fiction," p. 3; September 13, 2003, Michelle de Kretser, "Characterising, Dramatising, Objectifying Rwanda."
Booklist, October 1, 2003, Frank Sennett, review of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, p. 298.
Books in Canada, November, 2001, David Homel, "From Kigali to Montreal: Gil Courtemanche Breaks Out," pp. 47-48.
Guardian (London, England), October 4, 2003, Giles Foden, "Eggs, Beer and Murder."
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 2003, review of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, p. 975.
Le Devoir, September 17, 2005, Caroline Montpetit, review of Une belle mort.
Library Journal, September 15, 2003, Edward Keane, review of A Sunday in the Pool at Kigali, p. 90.
Maclean's, December 8, 2003, Benoit Aubin, "Voilà, a Hit Novel," p. 52.
New Internationalist, July, 2003, Peter Whittaker, review of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, p. 31.
New York Times, October 13, 2003, Janet Maslin, "For an Interloper, Love in the Time of Genocide," p. E10.
New York Times Book Review, October 26, 2003, Christopher Dickey, "Three Newsmen of the Apocalypse," p. 12.
Observer (London, England), October 5, 2003, Sarah Emily Miano, "Genocide in the Jungle."
Publishers Weekly, September 8, 2003, review of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, p. 53.
Quill & Quire, March, 2003, Craig Taylor, "Love in a Dangerous Time," p. 43.
Spectator, September 20, 2003, Gerard Prunier, review of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, p. 55.
Times (London, England), September 3, 2003, Jennifer Byrne, "Taking a Dip at Genocide," p. 17.
Mama pour Lavie,http://www.mamanpourlavie.com/ (December 22, 2006), review of Plouk le raton laveur qui ne voulait pas laver.
Radio Canada,http://www.radio-canada.ca/ (December 22, 2006), Florence Meney, review of Une belle mort.
World Socialist Web Site,http://www.wsws.org/ (November 4, 2003), Linda Slattery, review of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali.
York University Newsletter Y-life Online,http://www.yorku.ca/ylife/ (January 23, 2006), "A Thursday at York with Gil Courtemanche."*