When the 2022 National Book Awards were announced late last fall, I had a rooting interest in the “Translated Literature” category. One of the finalists was Scholastique Mukasonga’s Kibogo, translated by Mark Polizzotti and published by Archipelago Books. At the time, I was reading Kibogo with a group of students, and we had been enjoying it. How neat it would be, I thought, if I could tell them that the book we were reading had just won a major national award.
On the night of the announcement, I had the less than exciting ceremony streaming in the background while I worked. I perked up at the crucial moment, but alas, it was not to be: instead of Mukasonga’s book, the winner was Samanta Schweblin’s Seven Empty Houses, translated by Megan McDowell for Oneworld Publications. Naturally, I was disappointed. But on the other hand, I figured, if it had beaten out Kibogo, then Seven Empty Houses must be a pretty good book. So I resolved to read it eventually.
Having finally done so, I must confess to considerable surprise at the selection. Seven Empty Houses is not a terrible book (if I may damn it with faint praise). But neither is it particularly interesting. It consists of seven stories, all dealing with … odd people. In “None of That,” a daughter accompanies her elderly mother, who routinely enters the homes of wealthier strangers, searches them for objects known only to her, and departs with selected possessions. The narrator of “My Parents and My Children” is alarmed when his ex-wife brings their children to see his parents, who cavort around the yard stark naked, spraying one another with the garden hose and inviting their grandchildren to join in the fun when the parents’ backs are turned.
The collection is partially redeemed by the middle story, by far the longest in the volume, “Breath From the Depths,” which offers a sobering portrayal of an elderly woman’s descent into dementia. Lola, consumed by the thought that she must prepare for death, spends her days packing her and her husband’s belongings into carefully labeled boxes for eventual disposal. Although he remains the more mentally competent, she does not trust him to do anything properly. When a woman and her teenage son move in next door, the old man strikes up a friendship with the boy, much to the dismay of Lola, who feels a mixture of jealousy and anxiety at this small corner of their life not firmly under her control. After her husband unexpectedly dies, she is left to struggle with her diminishing mental powers. Lola’s receding sanity is both pathetic and frightening, and Schweblin skillfully allows the pieces of the story to emerge in a fragmented way that matches Lola’s own psyche.
After reading “Breath From the Depths,” I thought I had finally found the key to interpreting this strange collection of stories. Surely these were all examinations of an elderly person’s gradual slide into dementia, with the “empty houses” of the book’s title a metaphor for these characters’ slow loss of personality and departure from reality. But no—the last three stories in the volume leave the elderly behind and offer no more studies in dementia.
As small studies in the varieties that human eccentricity can take when prompted by loneliness and disappointment, these tales possess a certain psychological curiosity. But we have little chance to develop sympathy for these unmotivated acts of weirdness, and it is not clear what we should learn from pondering them. The New York Times blurb on the book cover suggests that “what makes Schweblin so startling as a writer is that she is impelled not by mere talent or ambition but by vision.” I confess that the vision eludes me. As a National Book Award winner, Seven Empty Houses is ultimately a disappointment.
Fortunately, however, we have Kibogo waiting in the wings, a runner-up in the competition, but by far a more stimulating read. Author Scholastique Mukasonga is a native of Rwanda. When she was still a young child, her family was forced to move to an inhospitable area of the country, where they lived in a refugee camp. Mukasonga managed to receive an education but was driven from the country, eventually becoming a social worker in France. Only two years after her arrival there, 37 of her family members were massacred in the Tutsi genocide. This experience prompted her to become a writer. She has written a half-dozen books, including novels, short stories, and memoirs; several of these have been translated into English. One, Our Lady of the Nile, has been made into a film.
Kibogo consists of four closely interlocking stories set in colonial Rwanda during and after the Second World War. All four depict the contrast and interplay between Rwandan village culture, the country’s Belgian colonial masters, and the Catholic missionaries who arrived with them to evangelize the natives. The villagers’ usually passive-aggressive resistance to Belgian efforts to civilize, modernize, and Christianize them creates a sort of drama in four acts. The first story, for instance, tells of a dreadful drought and famine that kills off large numbers of villagers. The Catholic priests blame the famine on continuing clandestine pagan practices, while others believe it results from an abandonment of traditional Rwandan piety. The villagers hedge their bets: on the same day, competing religious processions head up a mountainside, one led by a statue of Mary, the other by old Mukamwezi, priestess to the god Kibogo, bringer of rain. The rains finally arrive, with the reader left to decide whose intervention has ended the drought.
Mukasonga’s mischievous juxtaposition of Christian and Rwandan culture continues in the subsequent tales. We meet a heterodox young seminarian, Akayezu, who is expelled from seminary for unauthorized preaching and for daring to perform an emergency baptism on an apparently stillborn but then miraculously resurrected infant. Puzzled by the Bible’s failure to mention Rwandans, Akayezu develops his own eccentric exegesis in which the ascension of Jesus is conflated with Kibogo’s flight into the heavens in search of rain. In the third story, Mukamwezi and Akayezu join forces in order to summon Kibogo back from the heavens so that Rwanda can once again have a proper king instead of those Belgian interlopers. And in the final tale, a European professor shows up, hoping to record ancient folklore remembered by the village elders and then search for archaeological traces of forgotten pagan rituals. In reality, he is interested only in evidence that supports his pet theory that all “primitive” peoples engage in human sacrifice. When his return flight to Europe is struck by lightning and goes down in a storm, we are left to wonder whether perhaps he ought not to have angered Kibogo and the gods of Rwanda.
Mukasonga is rather coy about her attitude toward these cultural exchanges. One might read the cycle as the story of a foreign infection ultimately fought off by a healthy Rwandan immune response. But if the book invites such a reading in places, it also permits other interpretations. In particular, the Rwandan villagers are portrayed as superstitious, self-interested, and hypocritical. Their piety, whether toward the Christian God or their native religious practices, is shallow. They gladly tell the Europeans, whether priests, government officials, or pastors, whatever the Europeans want to hear. They hardly come off as moral exemplars. The culture that emerges from the Belgian-Rwandan, Christian-pagan encounter is the mixed offspring of two flawed parents.
Kibogo prompts the reader to reflect on a range of important questions: the influence and legacy of colonialism, the techniques of Christian missions, the relative compatibility of different religious worldviews, and—somewhat like the old debates about Matteo Ricci and the 16th-century Jesuit missions to China—the appropriateness or inappropriateness of seeking analogies for Christianity in the beliefs and legends of other traditions. The satirical collection’s social critique is often pointed, but it is also witty and playful. Mukasonga’s critical but humane vision makes her an important voice on the contemporary literary scene.