Murambi, the Book of Bones.
by Boubacar Boris Diop Translated by Fiona McLaughlin. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press 2006.

Reviewed by Nimu Njoya

This translation of Diop’s internationally acclaimed novel, originally published in French,[1] introduces one of Africa’s most important political novelists to an English-speaking audience. Murambi was born out of an initiative by African writers to commemorate and reflect upon the Rwandan genocide. In just 100 days between April and July 1994, close to 1 million people—mostly ethnic Tutsis—were killed in one of the bloodiest atrocities of the twentieth century.  The project
Rwanda: écrire par devoir de mémoire (‘Writing as a duty to remember’) brought ten prominent African writers to that country in 1998. At the time, there was very little non-specialist writing, let alone artistic reflection, on the tragic events. The writers of the Rwanda project exemplified a reemergence of African writers into the public sphere and an attempt to revive what Jean-Paul Sartre termed a “literature of engagement” on the continent.[2] 

Diop himself has had a long engagement with Sartre; a veteran of the student movement of 1968 in Senegal, Diop was an avid reader of the French philosopher and novelist (his nickname “Boris” is taken from one of Sartre’s characters in Les Chemins de la Liberté).[3] Diop went on to co-found the first independent newspaper in Senegal and is widely
respected today as one of the country’s foremost public intellectuals.  Murambi is Diop’s sixth novel.  

Murambi tells the story of a young history teacher, Cornelius Uvimana, who returns to Rwanda from his home in exile in Djibouti four years after the genocide.  His entire family was killed in the violence, with the sole exception of his uncle, Siméon Habineza. Cornelius’ journey home is a ritualistic attempt to come to terms with what happened to his family and his country: he intends to write a play about the events. In a series of fragments that are narratively discontinuous but imaginatively interwoven to describe the events of 1994, we hear the voices of a host of different characters: perpetrators, victims, and in-betweens.  This mélange of first-person accounts is presented in a sequence—before, during and after the genocide. Through these stories, we begin to see a fuller historical picture emerging, including the extensive planning, training, and propaganda that led up to the massacres, the very real terror (and stench) of the killing fields, and finally, Cornelius Uvimana standing alone amidst the decomposing pieces of his dismembered society.

Diop’s combination of journalistic reporting, historical narrative, and tightly leashed creative writing closely follows established conventions in genocide literature. The genre has been defined most decisively, of course, by responses to the Jewish Holocaust, which cast into doubt the capacity of art to represent the horror of mass atrocities. The post-World War II debate on the role of art in post-genocide society circled around Theodor Adorno’s famous comment that “it is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz.” Artists (as opposed to literary theorists) have put forward very little to counter Adorno’s assertion.  Most of the famous works of Holocaust writing have strictly limited the imaginative interpretation in deference to the “truth” of eyewitness testimony and archival material.[4]  References to many fiction writers of the Holocaust as “docu-novelists” is indicative of the narrative style that dominates the genre.[5]  This description could apply equally well to Murambi, which inserts itself into these debates through the soul-searching of Cornelius and also mirrors a distrust of artistic license that is typical of genocide writing. 

Despite its formal conservatism, Murambi does break new ground for a politically engaged literature in Africa. Diop’s novel can be seen as part of the search for new interpretations of the genocide in its connection to death and devastation in the African experience of history. The author attempts to balance an acknowledgement of the overpowering effects of colonialism with a refusal to place it at the center of an explanatory framework that would extinguish African subjecthood.  In the militant tones of the anti-colonial struggles of the 1950s, the great West African novelist Ousmane Sémbéne has praised Diop for exposing the hand of the former colonial powers in the Rwandan genocide.[6]  Indeed, Diop lays the devious maneuverings of the French generals as bare as the bones of the victims of the massacre at Murambi, hastily covered up but later exhumed as a grim testament to the events that took the lives of so many. We behold the French military covering the evacuation of the masterminds of the genocide, including the butcher of Murambi.  However, those who come to Diop’s novel with the sole intent of finding an indictment of colonialism will be gratified, but only at the expense of losing the plot entirely.  Murambi works expressly to reject a posture of absolute victimhood, showing that this position inevitably leads to glorification of violence as the only possibility for self-determination.

Through the character of Siméon Habineza, Diop explores the role of ideologies of victimhood in perpetuating the cycles of violence in Rwanda. When the villagers in Murambi set out to destroy the palatial home of the man who organized their relatives’ massacre, Siméon reminds them that acts of vengeance in Rwandan history have always called down new acts of retribution.  He is deeply concerned that the victims of yesterday should not interpret suffering as a moral license to act violently and then seek absolution in their own grief.  He faces down the mob with his characteristic quiet simplicity:  

 I want to tell you this: you have suffered, but that doesn’t make you any better than those who made you suffer.  They are people like you and me.  Evil is within each one of us.  I, Siméon Habineza, repeat, that you are not better than them.[7] 

In this way, Siméon Habineza attempts to dislodge a nascent victim identity that bestows an immutable innocence upon the suffering people of Murambi, but only by stripping them of the ethical responsibility that constitutes subjecthood. It is through this interruption of the victim identity in formation that Siméon discovers the roots of the vicious hatred that many have found so inexplicable. He reflects on the role of the former colonial powers in producing warring ethnic identities and provoking the periodic outbreaks of civil conflict.  Under German rule before World War I and later under Belgian rule, Tutsis were distinguished from Hutus by their supposedly taller, slimmer bodies, long noses and lighter skin that were taken as marks of racial superiority. The racial hierarchy instituted by the colonial government subordinated all Africans, but gave preference to Tutsis in education, politics and in the economy.  The 1959 revolt of Hutu peasants against Tutsis, who represented  and imposed colonial authority at the local level, began the waves of violence that led up to the 1994 genocide. 

These colonial legacies notwithstanding, Siméon feels that something still remains to be explained in the “rejoicing of the crowds in Kibungo, in Mugonero, and in Murambi.”[8]  What caused such intense celebrations of death?  Siméon recognizes in the cult of victimhood the desperation of those to whom history “happened” and who can achieve agency only through the act of butchering the perpetrators of that history.  Or their proxies.  Indeed, where Frantz Fanon saw self-recovery for the colonized in violent uprising against the colonialist, Siméon sees cycles of retribution in post-colonial Rwanda that are driven by the violent assertion of victim identities.[9]  His insistence that the villagers have a capacity to do evil, and not simply to be done to, is ironically what prompts them to act as and gain a consciousness of themselves as subjects rather than objects.

This position goes against the prevailing understanding of the experience of suffering in world politics.  At a time when the most violent and enduring conflicts involve group identities constructed around narratives of suffering, as with Israel and Palestine, and when torture is becoming respectable—indeed almost fashionable—in the US-led war on terror, surely it is time to rethink innocence and the imputed limitless horizon on what is ethically justifiable in the name of those who suffered and died.  In any case, history should suggest to us that the categories of “victim,” “perpetrator” and “witness” are never wholly discrete. As Primo Levi described so poignantly in his account of life in a Nazi death camp, our ordinary categories of moral judgment are emptied, distorted and inverted in the midst of mass extermination.[10]  In Diop’s novel, similar moral conundrums emerge.  Cornelius’ friend Jessica, who was part of the resistance mounted against the genocidal Hutu militias, reveals that she looked on as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) mercilessly butchered their enemies in the process of “liberating” the country. Cornelius himself discovers as he progresses on his journey that he is in fact “the perfect Rwandan: both guilty and a victim.”[11]  As Cornelius observes, “Maybe it was absurd of the victims to keep proclaiming their innocence so obstinately.”[12]  

Murambi suggests that ending violence and rebuilding society after large-scale atrocities demand a willingness of victims to give up the impotence of innocence and become self-determining through acts of forgiveness.  Forgiveness not as a vague spiritual disposition towards evildoers, but as a survival imperative that demands that victims act in a non-violent, non-vengeful way towards perpetrators in order to redeem themselves as subjects of history.  The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission advanced this perspective in the face of strong opposition to what critics saw as the eclipse of justice by an uncompromising insistence on forgiveness.   Against his critics, TRC Chairman Desmond Tutu emphasized that there is not much of a future for post-conflict societies without forgiveness and reconciliation.[13]  The force of the moral imperative voiced in South Africa reverberates through Murambi, and the interaction between Siméon and the villagers foreshadows Rwanda’s own attempt to set up a transitional justice mechanism based on truth-telling and reconciliation: the Gacaca system of community courts. 

Despite the limitations inherent in extending the traditional Gacaca to deal with a mass tragedy on the scale of the Rwandan genocide,[14] the model must be contrasted with its political alternative: pursuing “the enemy” willy-nilly across the globe, targeting civilian populations, and authorizing summary executions, torture, and extended detentions without trial.  Contrary to conventional wisdom, the second option is not the preserve of superpowers; it simply requires “the headiness of those who have the power to be cruel to other human beings.”[15]  Human rights activists have presented evidence that the new Rwanda regime engaged in retaliatory attacks against Hutu refugees in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo following the Tutsi genocide. For this reason, it is disturbing that Murambi barely gives a nod to the fate of thousands of Hutus who were massacred as the RPF advanced on Kigali and in the violence that followed the refugees across the border into Eastern Congo. [16]  To a novelist like Diop who takes Sartre seriously, we must pose Sartre’s own question: “Why have you spoken of this rather than that, and—since you speak in order to bring about change—why do you want to change this rather than that?”[17]

Diop’s novel presents the year 1959 as the starting point for the violence that led to the genocide.[18]  Why 1959, and yet the history of violent ethnic conflict is much longer?  Why is the idea of ancient and eternal intertribal conflict thoroughly discounted in the novel, only for the narrative to take up unquestioningly the historicist view of an inexorable build-up of hostilities from 1959 to 1994? Must history be either reductionist or teleological?           Murambi certainly gives that impression. Also, in its relative silence regarding what happened to a broad spectrum of Hutus (not just the “moderate” Hutus accused of harboring Tutsi sympathies), Murambi becomes party to the silencing of stories that do no fit the “official” version of the Rwandan genocide.[19]  Thankfully, Diop’s insights are powerful enough to penetrate beyond the writer’s self-imposed limits.  Murambi reaches beyond borders to illuminate what is obscured in today’s international order and make clear the genocidal implications of notions of “us versus them” that are taken for granted in every-day politics. It is a testament to the novelist’s vision that he accomplishes this in spite of a restrictive framing of the narrative that would surely have hampered a writer less politically astute than Diop.


[1] Murambi, Le Livre des Ossements. Paris: Stock, 2000.

[2] Fiona Mc Laughlin, “Introduction: to Call a Monster by Its Name,” in Murambi, xv.

[3] Charles J. Sugnet, “Dances with Wolofs: A Conversation with Boubacar Boris Diop,” Transition 10.3 (2001) 138-159.

[4] Even today, Paul Celan’s 1945 poem Death Fugue stands out as one of the most artistically unconstrained representations of life in the concentration camps.

[5] James E. Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust: Narrative and the Consequences of Interpretation, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990.

[6] Comments carried on back cover of Murambi.

[7] Murambi, 164.

[8] Murambi, 170.

[9] For a commentary on Frantz Fanon’s argument that violence in the context of anti-colonial struggles was life-affirming for the native and the implications of this assertion in the case of Rwanda, see Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers: Colonialism, Nativism, and the Genocide in Rwanda, Princeton University Press, 2001.

[10] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity, New York: Collier Books, 1993.

[11] Murambi, 79.

[12] Murambi, 66.

[13] Government of South Africa, Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa Report.  Forward by the Chairperson.

[14]See, for example, Barbara Oomen, “Donor-Driven Justice and its Discontents: The Case of Rwanda,” Development & Change Vol. 36 Issue 5, Sep2005.

[15] Eileen Julienne in Murambi, ix.

[16] The situation was complicated by the presence of Interahamwe militia elements among the refugees.  See Aliko Songolo, “Marie Béatrice Umutesi's Truth: The Other Rwanda Genocide?” African Studies Review Vol. 48 Issue 3, Dec2005.

[17] Jean-Paul Sartre, “What is Writing?” in ‘What is Literature?’ and Other Essays, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988, 39.

[18] Murambi, 48, 74.

[19] Kenneth Harrow “‘Ancient Tribal Warfare’: Foundational Fantasies of Ethnicity and History,” Research in African Literatures Vol. 36 Issue 2, Summer 2005.  Also see Aliko Songolo, op. cit.