Friday, May 2, 2008

PEN World Voices: Writing Genocide

I read several books on the genocide in Rwanda while I was working on A Basket of Leaves, and Machete Season by Jean Hatzfeld was one of the most striking. Instead of interviewing the survivors (as he does in another book), he talked to the killers themselves — the men who had spent their days tracking down Tutsis in the papyrus marshes near a town in the south, and killing them. Like all books on the genocide, it never adequately answered the question of how seemingly ordinary people become capable of atrocities — but it was a brave attempt to do it. Writing Genocide was the first panel I attended in this year’s PEN World Voices festival, and when I got there I was disappointed that Hatzfeld couldn’t come. But I soon found that Lieve Joris and Christian Jungersen had more than enough interesting and disquieting things to say to occupy the time. Joris, a Belgian writer living in the Netherlands, has spent years in the Congo and has written three books about the country, including The Rebels’ Hour. Jungersen is a young Danish novelist whose new book is a psychological drama called The Exception. Before describing their own books, each author began by giving his or her impressions of the others’ work. Jungersen said the protagonist of The Rebels’ Hour was the strangest character he had ever felt sympathy for: a young man whose feelings of ostracism drive him to power and violence. Joris said The Exception, which she read in Dutch, reads like a thriller. It tells the story of four women working in a human rights organization in Copenhagen, where office politics come to mirror the paranoia and vindictiveness of the crimes they are researching. Both writers, they noted, were (like Hatzfeld) writing about the perpetrators of genocide rather than the victims. Joris’s character was based closely on a real-life person whom she had gotten to know over several years. “I’m not going to put him on a Wanted poster,” she said. “I had to find a novelistic way to tell the story.” The risks in telling his story, she said, were that she might blow his cover, or that she might burn her own wings (whether physically or psychologically she didn’t make clear). This was a difficult book to write, she said. She lives near a canal in Amsterdam, and at times she was tempted to throw the manuscript into the canal, and herself with it. Though Joris had come closer to witnessing genocide, Jungersen had thought deeply about how it works. We are always told how important it is to feel the pain of others, for instance, so we might suppose that warm, empathetic, well-socialized people are less likely to participate in genocide. Not so, he said. Genocide thrives on emotion and togetherness, on feeling part of the group and dwelling on the suffering of oneself and one’s people. According to one expert he interviewed, it is the misfits who are most likely to resist the pressure to do evil: those who are “half weird,” who wear two different shoes, the computer geeks, those who aren’t part of the group.

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