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Witnessing history through the lenses of literature can be a daunting one. It is evident that fiction and history share a bipolar relation within writing, and constructing a text which involving both elements is a sensitive issue in the intellectual community today. Journalist & novelist Boubacar Boris Diop’s Murambi: The Book of Bones suggests that witnessing history through is not limited to “language, discourse and image” but could also include perspective. Perspective offers the reader various accounts of experiences which is the novel showcases. The concern however, is how authentic a text can such as Murambi be when: firstly, the writer himself is an outsider witnessing a particular historical period. Secondly, the text is based on a factual discourse; historical events. The essay will therefore look at how Diop takes on the challenge of witnessing history through literature – through the exploitation of perspective. The essay will look at Murambi: The Book of Bones and other texts surrounding the novel to see how Diop uses fiction to construct a historical experience and how he addresses key issues pertaining literature in light of witnessing history.
Murambi: The Book of Bones is highly praised for its ability to fictionalize history-reporting historical facts through means of fictional devices. The novel provides a different, yet effective account that “journalistic accounts and histories cannot”. Murambi serves as a platform in which the ‘witness’ reports factual information on a particular historical event. One thematic element which is interesting to look at is various accounts of the experiences of those who lived through the genocide, which spans throughout the novel. It is rich in multiple “narratives and perspectives” which serves to support the “human dimension” of genocide. It helps to reinforce the importance of accurately retelling the story – a key issue which Diop addresses throughout the novel. In a 2010 interview, Diop speaks about many elements involving the making of Murambi: The Book of Bones, particularly that of perspective. He states that there is no link between the different chapters of the novel. By doing so, it suggests that their accounts are “fragmentary”. Karin Samuels gives an account of the nature of trauma:
“the experience of trauma splits and fragments the self and therefore the ‘structure’ of trauma, as such, is disjointed, non-linear, dreamlike…. And fragmented”. The fragmented narrative of Murambi simultaneously reflects the “destructive nature of trauma” and offering accounts of people (in terms of fictional characters) and their experiences through utilizing “narrative perspectives” (Samuel, 37). The characters in Murambi are themselves traumatized and therefore memory itself is perverted. This is evident as the shattered structure of the novel brings trauma and its effects to life; time and place are constantly warping throughout the different chapters in the novel. In addition, the “physical fragmentation” of traumatic experiences is present in the narrative and perspectives of the characters; those who observed and described the “mutilation and dismemberment of bodies”. The reader is offered a parti-colored of individual perspectives. As such, Murambi serves to engrave the “experience of victims as part of the memories of all”. Diop uses fiction to recreate a historical period and to observe the experiences of those who lived through it. He does this by “causing each one of these people to live again, giving them identities”. The perspective of the victim, the perpetrator, and the ‘outsider’ and their calamities are all addressed in Murambi: The Book of Bones.
In a 2010 interview, Boubacar Boris Diop suggests that even though genocide was a collective experience, each person experienced it differently. “When we look beyond he cries of hate and terror, beyond the general confusion, each person is alone”. Therefore, when witnessing such an event in literature, it is important to critically look at ‘who’ is witnessing and how this ‘who’ is witnessing. Diop also speaks about the making of Murambi: the Book of Bones- about how and why it was made. He and other nine other African writers were asked to travel to Rwanda and stay there for two months. There was a concern that events like the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 were not documented. There was a lack of concern on such issues. The stay in Rwanda would provide a platform in which these writers “were to bear witness to what had happened there” (Tadjo, 426). Diop suggested that African writers have a responsibility write and observe traumatic historical events in Africa. Especially ones in which millions of lives were lost. One which did not get as much international attention as such the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa during the 1980s and 1990s. Diop admits that “literature certainly cannot do everything, but we cannot ignore it” (Tadjo, 430). It is clear that fiction and history share an inverse relationship, and it is a sensitive issue when attempting to construct a text in which both elements must co-exist. This is where Murambi: the Book of Bones gets it right. It gives a factual voice to those who cannot speak about it anymore – “recovering, at best we can, the full, complex lives concealed in the statistics of genocide and rendering their humanity”. It gives the reader insight on what the victims and the perpetrators went through. Those who stood by and did nothing. Through the perspective of these different characters, Diop is able to factually construct a narrative which not only bears “witness” to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, but addresses the importance of witnessing itself.
One issue which arises from the narrative perspectives of the novel is ‘who’ is witnessing? What position does the witness take and how does this effect the overall authenticity of the novel? Diop is conscious of this as himself is an outsider to the Rwandan history. When speaking to the Rwandans they visited, He claims that there was a “moral dilemma” on whether he was in the position to “fictionalize” such a traumatic experience. Diop was aware of the sensitivity of retelling another’s story. Some Rwandans asked him and the other nine writers not to “write fictional accounts but to report on what we had actually seen and heard.” It is evident that the Rwandans did not want their story to be one that was based on “fictional accounts”- due to their stories and experiences being real. Furthermore, Diop and the others themselves were not Rwandan. They were outsiders. They could not empathize with the suffering of the Rwandan people. It leads the reader to ask how authentic is Murambi in accounting for experiences of the Rwandan people; their history. How accurate is Murambi in witnessing genocide? Given the position of Diop as an outsider. What is the novel witnessing? How does it deal with the issues surrounding witnessing history through literature? What does this mean for literature in light of writing on historical atrocities and the credibility of texts like Murambi? These are issues Diop acknowledges and attempts to address in his novel.
It is evident to see how Diop addresses these concerns in Murambi: The Book of Bones. One way he does this is with the main protagonist Cornelius, an exiled Rwandan teacher who reutrns to his country of birth, after the genocide of 1994. He returns to try and deal with the aftermath of the genocide: the death of his family, his friends and “his father’s role in the massacre that took place at Murambi Technical College” (Samuel, 35). His goal is to write a play about the genocide- he reunites with family and friends who survived the genocide. In the same way that Diop is witnessing this period in this, so does Cornelius. This “mirrors” the connection between the “outsider position” and the Rwandan genocide and the experience of it. The language definitely suggests this. Part two and four of the novel, the narrative is told in the third person to reinforce that Cornelius, to some extent, is an outsider. “He” instead of “I” separates the reader from the character and helps the reader to be aware of this- with Cornelius serving as the symbol for the outsider’s perspective. One should note that Cornelius isn’t entirely an outsider, he’s an exile born in Rwanda. This constructs a setting within the narrative to account for Cornelius’ need to return to Rwanda. Thus, the reader can gain access to the lenses of the genocide through the eyes of Cornelius. However, his quest to “piece together the fragments of genocide” mirrors the reader’s own quest to recreate the atrocities of genocide. It is been stated that the character of Cornelius gives the reader an eyeview of the genocide; post-genocide Rwanda. Diop wants the reader, through this character, to attempt to “fathom intuitively the secret relationship between the trees standing still on the side of the road and the barbarous scenes that had stupefied the entire world during the genocide”. This creates an interesting parallel relation between the reader and the character of Cornelius. Along with the fragmented structure of the novel, Cornelius and the reader are both impelled to piece together the “fragments presented in the and by the text, and in this way reconstruct what occurred in Rwanda”. In the same way that Cornelius is absent during the genocide, so is the reader. Both are forced to come to terms with being absent. Thus, both Cornelius and the reader are forced to acknowledge the “dire consequences of their absence during the genocide”. This is Something Diop wishes to address. The consequences of not witnessing such atrocities are severe. Without witnessing history, the voices of victims will remain silent, justice cannot prevail and reparations don’t become an important pillar towards reconciliation. It is through the use of fiction, that Diop addresses issues on witnessing history and the issues that come with it.
This essay has attempted to show how Diop uses fiction to witness history in his novel Murambi: The Book of Bones. It discussed how history and fiction had a bipolar relation with one another – where the former deals with factual evidence and the latter deals with fabricating narratives. It also discussed how perspectives helps in giving insight on how people lived through those experiences; it shows the humane side of the story. The cracked structure of the narrative also displayed the nature of trauma and how it can distort memory. The main issue that Diop tries to address is the importance of witnessing and how perspective helps reinforce this. Witnessing history through literature gives to those who cannot tell their stories anymore- and this is what Murambi tries to achieve. The outside perspective has been a concern when assessing the authenticity of the novel – which through the use of Cornelius Diop acknowledges and addresses.
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