Boyd Tonkin

The dictator of the dorm: Our Lady of the Nile, by Scholastique Mukasonga, reviewed

Set in an exclusive girls’ lycée above Lake Kivu, the novel moves from adolescent japes to a classroom apocalypse which anticipates the Rwandan genocide

The dictator of the dorm: Our Lady of the Nile, by Scholastique Mukasonga, reviewed
Scholastique Mukasonga. Credit: Getty Images
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Our Lady of the Nile

Scholastique Mukasonga, translated by Melanie Mauthner

Daunt Books, pp. 224, £9.99

In the cloud-capped highlands of Rwanda, even the rain-makers sound like crashing snobs. When two teenage pupils from Our Lady of the Nile lycée slope off to consult the sorceress Nyamirongi about some boyfriend trouble, she sizes up their genealogies and comes over all Mitford duchess: ‘You’re not from very good families. But nowadays they say it no longer matters.’ Like so much in Scholastique Mukasonga’s novel, it’s a comic scene with a rumble of menace in the background — akin to the rainy season’s distant thunder in these lush, green hills. Where you belong — your people, your connections, your identity — has been a matter of life and death before. Soon it will be again.

Raised in Rwanda, Mukasonga fled into exile in 1973, first to neighbouring Burundi and then to France, when an earlier wave of persecution targeted the country’s Tutsi minority. Her memoir Cockroaches appeared in 2006, and this novel in 2012; it won three prizes. During the 1994 genocide in Rwanda she lost 37 family members.

Even in this story, set in the late 1970s, Tutsi girls — subject to a 10 per cent admissions quota — must accept their lowly status as ‘cockroaches, snakes, rodents’. Over them stand the Hutu, those ‘children of the hoe’ — ‘doughty, democratic farmers’, according to colonial-era myths now enshrined in law. Empowered by ethnic ‘delusions’ from the imperial age, which framed the Tutsi as ‘Hamitic’ interlopers from the north, the Hutu ruled Rwanda after Belgium’s mandate ended.

Posh schools in fiction often serve as breeding grounds of tyranny. The seeds of autocracy sprout in the microcosmic corridors of swanky establishments from Austria (Musil’s Young Törless) to Peru (Vargas Llosa’s The Time of the Hero), by way of Muriel Spark’s, and Miss Jean Brodie’s, 1930s Edinburgh. Mukasonga’s lofty lycée, a training camp for top girls from elite families, whose marriages will be ‘the stuff of politics’, to some degree belongs with these allegorical academies.

Mother Superior and Sister Bursar, those ‘hybrid creatures’ beyond male or female, white or black, may hold the formal reins of authority, assisted by the creepy old lech Father Herménégilde. (‘A priest’s eyes know not concupiscence,’ he oozes.) Save for a few local teachers, Belgian misfits and French hippies occupy the staff room.

But the stocky, bullying Gloriosa, the daughter of a bigwig from the ruling party, dominates the dorms. It is she who schemes to replace the suspiciously Tutsi features of the Blessed Virgin’s statue at the source of the Nile with an ethnically correct proboscis, ‘the nose of the majority people’. When Gloriosa’s poisonous plots against the Tutsi pupils Veronica and Virginia come to light, she barks back with a cabinet minister’s retort: ‘It’s not lies, it’s politics.’

Led by this dorm dictator, the scapegoating deepens. Events brew towards a dénouement that will leave the children convinced that ‘all human beings hide something terrifying within’. Yet this parable of the roots of genocide skips along, almost until the end, from lark to lark, scrape to scrape — as if the girls’ school yarns of Angela Brazil had relocated to the hills above Lake Kivu.

Even as danger grows, droll episodes abound. The Queen of Belgium visits, but scarpers in a downpour (‘the bad manners of white people’); the failed coffee-planter Fontenaille ensnares Veronica and Virginia in his fantasies about a Tutsi ‘empire of the black pharaohs’; crotchety relatives must be visited and pacified. ‘A paternal aunt is like a threatening storm,’ we learn, in one of several Wodehousian flourishes.

Melanie Mauthner’s translation has an old-fashioned formality that can sound arch but fits the strained mood of gentility and hierarchy. Violence here remains unspeakable, until the rough voice of demagoguery snarls that ‘our lycée is still full of parasites, impurities and filth’. The adolescent japes stop. A classroom apocalypse anticipates the greater horrors over the horizon.