There is something enchanting about the dichotomy of simultaneous simplicity and complexity. The intertwining of the two, I believe, creates some of the best writing ever made. In a time when Hollywood and many publishing houses are on the perpetual search for the next apocalyptic franchise, the beauty of a focused, microcosmal narrative is too often overlooked and undervalued. There is no shortage of such narrative or such beauty in Roland Rugero’s Baho!, a novel that, despite (or perhaps because of) its brevity, provides an enthralling and profound slice of life.
Baho! ends almost as quickly as it begins. The novel is not even a full one-hundred pages and yet it tells a story that weaves across and around generations from Kanya, a village in Burundi. Time is an ever malleable concept in the novel, with the story’s plot and narrative structure delivered out of chronological order. The narrative jumps between perspectives and between present, past, and future tenses. In the vein of proper poetry, words are never wasted on the page. The word choice is never pretentious and the sentence structure is never boring, leading to that rarest of combinations – quick pacing and rich language worth unpacking. All of these effects flow together to leave the reader feeling as if no time has passed at all, whether measuring the minutes spent reading or following the lives of the characters. This is beautifully exemplified by the novel’s use of the Kirundi word “ejo”, which can be translated into English as either “yesterday” or “tomorrow”. There is very little difference between the two in Baho!, lending the story a cyclical nature that is pregnant with commentary on human nature.
And if Baho! has a great deal to say about time and the repetition of events, then it has a veritable oration waiting for patriarchy. All of the horrific events mentioned in the novel, ranging from war and murder to rape and domestic abuse, are laid at the feet of a deeply sexist system. Feminine sexual “purity” is regarded as a matter of life, death, and eternal salvation for the village of Kanya. When a suspected rapist is caught, the group of judges that have taken justice into their own hands cry out “Let’s go, men! We must defend ourselves!”, as if masculine honor and pride are of higher priority than personage of the potential victim. The female characters, especially the poignantly unnamed, one-eyed woman, provide ironic and unintentional commentary on the mixing of alcohol and perceived emasculation. Sexist ideology is so ingrained that the one-eyed woman, herself an otherwise strong-willed character, recites a story for children that can only be seen as romantic through male-dominated lenses that treat women as wares.
Rugero’s skill is doubly apparent in moments such as this because the reader is never instructed on how to think about the issue – he merely presents a sequence of events and allows them to speak for themselves. All of the social commentary present in Baho! is expressed in this way. The scars of war, the twisting of morality to justify fear and vengeance, and the very human need for scapegoats are all addressed as part of an interconnected landscape, not pleading to be the center of attention but also impossible to ignore. This, in turn, plays perfectly alongside Rugero’s use of form and structure. Just as is the case with his use of time, Rugero’s style alternates between all available to him, from Western hero’s journey to African oral tradition. The novel tries on different presentations like a person tries on clothes, sampling the comedic, the absurd, the tragic, and even a pinch of deus ex machina which, rather than detract from the story, provides its own commentary on the nature of family and obligation.
I imagine that the comparisons this novel will draw are going to be multitudinous, but I am reminded most pleasantly of both Chinua Achebe and William Faulkner as I read it. Baho! is a story of pride and masculinity run amok, of the aftermath of war and what it means to have definitions forced upon you by society. It is a beautiful breath of perspective from the type of voice that we in “Western society” so rarely hear (oftentimes because we willfully ignore such voices). And as the translator, Christopher Schaefer, so aptly points out, Baho! does not spend its time on the wider conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis. Rugero seems to understand that many of his potential readers have, rather shamefully, become desensitized to large-scale statistical depictions of the violence in the region. So he has narrowed our focus down to a few people, a single village at the widest, and made us see the people as people, rather than numbers in a news report. I highly recommend this novel, for the strength of its story, for the depth of its characters and commentary, and for the fact that you probably have read nothing it like it before.
Baho! is available now through Phoneme Media.