Gourevitch, Philip 1961-
GOUREVITCH, Philip 1961-
ADDRESSES: Office—c/o World Policy Institute, New School University, 66 Fifth Ave., 9th Floor, New York, NY 10011.
CAREER: Forward (newspaper), English edition, New York bureau chief, 1992-93, cultural editor, 1993-95, then contributing editor; New Yorker, New York, NY, staff writer; Yaddo (writers' colony), Saratoga Springs, NY, writer-in-residence. Appeared on television programs, including The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, PBS, 1997. Affiliated with the Echoing Green Foundation and the United States Institute for Peace.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Magazine Award finalist, 1996, 1997; National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction, 1999, Cornelius Ryan Award from the Overseas Book Club, Helen Bernstein Award from the New York Public Library, George Polk Book Award, London Guardian prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award, all for We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda; senior fellow, World Policy Institute.
We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1998.
A Cold Case, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2001.
(Author of foreword) Village of Waiting, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 2001.
Contributor to periodicals, including Commentary, Double Take, Forward, Granta, Harper's, New Yorker, New York Review of Books, New York Times Magazine, Outside, Southwest Review, Story, and Zoetrope.
SIDELIGHTS: Though Philip Gourevitch had planned on becoming a fiction writer, his first book was an acclaimed work of political reportage. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families:Stories from Rwanda exposes the story of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. During the massacre, large numbers of Rwanda's majority population, the Hutus, massacred an estimated 800,000 of the country's minority Tutsis and Tutsi sympathizers over a period of about 100 days. Disturbed by the dearth of information on the subject appearing in the Western press, which had heavily reported incidents of "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia, Gourevitch traveled to Rwanda in 1995. He spent years researching the context and aftermath of the genocide. What he uncovered led to a book that shocked and shamed readers, provoking scrutiny about the United Nations' reluctance to intervene in time to avert the tragedy.
Critics found that one of the chief strengths of the book is its focus on individual lives. Gourevitch interviewed many witnesses and survivors, letting their voices carry their own powerful message. According to Africa correspondent Collette Braeckman in the World Policy Journal, Gourevitch "conjugates Rwanda in the singular. What his book mainly consists of are chronicles of individual Rwandan men and women. And in their particular destinies, he assembles the drama of a whole people." Nation contributor George Packer voiced similar praise, writing that Gourevitch is "at his very best when listening to ordinary Rwandans, especially the survivors, and trying to make sense of their stories. These voices haunt the book, and they haunt the reader afterward."
Gourevitch contends in We Wish to Inform You that representatives of the United Nations knew that the Rwandan genocide was imminent but chose not to intervene. He reports that as early as January, 1994, Kofi Annan, the chief of peacekeeping operations for the United Nations (and later the secretary-general of the United Nations), received warnings of a planned coup d'etat and Tutsi massacre, but he did not order peacekeeping forces into Rwanda. Later, the United States, despite evidence to the contrary, refused to admit that genocide was occurring in Africa. This indifference to the plight of Rwanda makes We Wish to Inform You "a burden on world conscience," in the words of Nigerian writer and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, writing in the New York Times Book Review.
Gourevitch "leaves all options open and does not give in to optimism. His purpose is to try to understand, not to judge or to predict events," observed Braeckman. In his review of We Wish to Inform You in the Nation, Packer admired Gourevitch's willingness to pose difficult questions, noting that their "resonance throughout his book shows a rare depth of ethical and philosophical inquiry in a work of political reportage." Soyinka praised the historical context that the book provides, stating that "no one explanation satisfies. Gourevitch assists us with antecedents but does not propose, and rightly so, any clear-cut answers." Angolan novelist Sousa Jamba wrote in the New Statesman that We Wish to Inform You was disappointing to him, because "it fails to probe into the darker forces behind the genocide." Jamba faulted Gourevitch for placing too little emphasis on the importance of ethnicity among Rwandans. While Gourevitch argues that these ethnic distinctions were imposed by European colonialists, Jamba criticized this approach for its failure to ask why Rwandans would embrace such "quasifascist theories of race." Nevertheless, Jamba admitted that the book "joins a long and distinguished list of attempts by Americans to understand Africa."
We Wish to Inform You takes its title from a Christian Tutsi congregation's futile letter to its pastor for help. The book received the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) Award for general nonfiction as well as the Cornelius Ryan Award from the Overseas Book Club, the Helen Bernstein Award from the New York Public Library, the George Polk Book Award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. In awarding the prize, NBCC board member Steve G. Kellman praised the book as "vivid reportage, plangent elegy, and provocative meditation on evil and the fictions of an international community."
One of the many things that struck Gourevitch while he was writing We Wish to Inform You is how the perpetrators of the slaughter of thousands of people were able to justify these murders in their own minds. The Hutus felt they were entitled to kill the Tutsis, and so their consciences were not troubled by the genocide. Sometime later, Gourevitch came across the same mentality when he began to research a book about a double murder in New York City.
When Gourevitch first set out to interview district attorney investigator Andrew Rosenzweig, his intention was only to write an interesting profile about a man whose career as a criminal investigator was winding down toward retirement. But when Rosenzweig mentioned the case concerning Frankie Koehler's murder of two men, the writer could not get the story out of his mind. Back in 1970, Koehler got into an argument with two men at a restaurant. Feeling insulted by their remarks, Koehler decided to take his anger out by using a gun, killing both men. Although police quickly determined who the perpetrator was, Koehler managed to disappear, and for twenty-seven years no one knew what had happened to him. The case was considered closed until Rosenzweig, who happened to have known one of the murder victims, decided to conduct his own investigation. In 1997 he tracked Koehler down in San Francisco, where he was living under an assumed identity. Brought back to New York, Koehler was convicted of the crime. However, because the case had grown so cold, the prosecutor was only able to get Koehler sentenced to six to thirteen years.
Gourevitch became fascinated by the case and, even more so, by Koehler, Rosenzweig, and defense attorney Murray Richman. After conducting numerous interviews, he wrote the story down in A Cold Case. A Cold Case is not so much a murder mystery, or even a story about chasing down an elusive crook (Koehler is captured halfway through the book); it is a story about personalities. When interviewing Koehler, the author found him to be an intelligent, even likable character. "He's a man of considerable charm," he told Sage Stossel in Atlantic Unbound. "He's a seducer in a sense. He works his charms to try and persuade you to see things his way. He's clearly intelligent. . . . For him it was something of a treat to have the opportunity to sit down and talk in a quiet one-on-one way with somebody who was very interested in him—a subject which he seems to think is of universal interest—and also just to show off his intelligence and his thoughtfulness."
In their talks, Koehler reveals himself as someone who justifies his acts by saying that he is a product of his environment. "Where I come from," Koehler declares, "if you don't like somebody and they're really a scumbag, and they really bug you, you shoot them." Gourevitch, however, calls such reasoning patently false, pointing out that plenty of people grow up in tough New York neighborhoods without becoming killers. Oddly enough, Koehler also seems to have his own strange sense of morality in that he feels it is okay to kill someone who bugs you, but only a "scumbag" would kill for personal profit.
In addition to Koehler, the author finds Rosenzweig and Richman to be equally compelling characters. Rosenzweig is the moralist for whom "the truth is the truth," and Richman is an amoral charmer, who, while intelligent, has no problem being paid for defending people he knows are criminals. "Murray Richman," the author told Stossel, "is a fascinating man, because he's the unabashed, slightly comic, wisecracking kind of defense lawyer who makes remarks like 'I love murder—one less witness to worry about' that are inherently offensive and clearly outrageous, and also more than just schtick."
Gourevitch compares the three main players in A Cold Case's drama to the movies about which they obsess: Koehler is fascinated by James Cagney, Rosenzweig by Gary Cooper in High Noon, and Richman by Casablanca because "it's all about life's ambiguities." Critics also found that the people in A Cold Case were easily typed, and Peter Slevin, writing in Washington Monthly, felt the comparison between the real people and movie characters to be "one of Gourevitch's great discoveries." However, Slevin also complained that A Cold Case is "not an ambitious book" because the author simply allows the principal actors to speak for themselves. "If Gourevitch had only dug deeper," Slevin felt, "everyone—including the accomplished author—might have had more to say." However, other reviewers were more pleased with the book as a character study. Entertainment Weekly critic Troy Patterson, for example, said that "the book's joys are not those of suspense and narrative tension but of character and narrative shape—the zigzagging through the lives of people you could say were out of Damon Runyon if they didn't inhabit our earth."
Although Gourevitch reveals Koehler to be an interesting person, what he does not do is excuse his acts in any way. As with We Wish to Inform You, in A Cold Case is a testimony to the author's desire for his audience not to forget the dead; he is, in a way, a speaker for the victims. As one Publishers Weekly contributor said in a review of A Cold Case, "Gourevitch has secured a place next to Rosenzweig in that lonely and all-important choir."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Gourevitch, Philip, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, Farrar, Straus, 1998.
Christian Century, February 27, 2002, Stephen R. Haynes, review of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, p. 30.
Contemporary Review, December, 1999, Tom Phillips, "Understanding Rwanda," p. 321.
Entertainment Weekly, October 23, 1998, p. 74; July 27, 2001, Troy Paterson, "Murders Ink: Journalist Philip Gourevitch's A Cold Case Transforms a Real Police Investigation into a Noirish Thriller," p. 64.
Foreign Affairs, March, 1999, p. 158.
Library Journal, September 1, 1998, review of We Wish to Inform You, p. 201; July, 1999, Michael Rogers and Norman Oder, "Gourevitch Wins NYPL Journalism Award," p. 24; May 15, 2001, Deirdre Bray, review of A Cold Case, p. 144.
Nation, November 16, 1998, George Packer, review of We Wish to Inform You, pp. 58, 60-62.
National Book Critics Circle Journal, April, 1999, pp. 2-3.
New Statesman, March 19, 1999, Sousa Jamba, review of We Wish to Inform You, pp. 44-45.
New York Times Book Review, October 4, 1998, Wole Soyinka, review of We Wish to Inform You, p. 11.
Publishers Weekly, August 17, 1998, review of We Wish to Inform You, p. 56; December 20, 1999, Jean Richardson, "American Wins 'Guardian' Prize," p. 15; May 21, 2001, review of A Cold Case, p. 88.
U.S. News & World Report, July 2, 2001, March Silver, "Speaking for the Dead," p. 48.
Washington Monthly, July, 2001, Peter Slevin, review of A Cold Case, p. 54.
World Policy Journal, winter, 1998, Collette Braeckman, review of We Wish to Inform You, pp. 99-104.
Atlantic Unbound,http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/ (November 11, 2002), Sage Stossel, "A Tale of Two Murders."
Online NewsHour,http://www.pbs.org/newshour/ (January 7, 1999), "Remembering the 1994 Genocide."
World Policy Institute,http://www.worldpolicy.org/ (September 3, 1999).*