All Your Children, Scattered
(Europa Editions, 2022)
Translated from the French by Alison Anderson
This novel’s sonorous title, we learn towards the end, comes from the Catholic Confirmation liturgy: a prayer out of Europe, hundreds of years old. Yet before we finish the book’s first page, we know that the children in question come from central Africa, and that what scattered them was a latter-day genocide. Not quite thirty years ago now, Rwandan Hutus slaughtered their Tutsi neighbors mercilessly, in perhaps the world’s ugliest recent outbreak of tribal hatred. The viscera spill across the opening of All Your Children, Scattered, a passage that recasts the terror as an offense to nature. At sundown, local dogs grow drowsy, “their bellies stuffed with a human feast,” while the morning birds at last emerge, having spent the day roosting, “so as not to bear witness.”
Can so savage a landscape ever return to decency, to humanity? The answer must be worked out by a few far-flung family, over the rest of the narrative⎯ though even this initial passage offers a glimmer of relief. Come twilight, “our killers are tired from their long day’s work,” and survivors come out of hiding to forage for sustenance. They take whatever comfort they can, even the smell of flowers, and so enjoy a “tiny, clandestine peace.” With that, as a poet might put it, the healing herbs have already put down seeds.
Beata Umubyeyi Mairesse is in fact a poet, with a collection out in French, as well as two books of stories. Born a Tutsi, in her teens she eluded the Hutu machetes, fleeing to France, and twenty years later began to publish. Judging from the few pieces of hers I’ve seen, in translation or working with my old vocabulaire, the “infinite echo” of the massacres in her homeland sounds through everything Mairesse has done. This first novel, however, has the feel of a breakthrough, a transcendence. While ranging across two continents and three generations, it generates swift story momentum but never lacks for subtlety, bringing off a holocaust literature to rival the work on last century’s destruction of the Jews. At the least, All Your Children, Scattered delivers a brilliant poetic triptych of this century’s defining tragedy ⎯ so far.
The Rwanda exodus, after all, represents but a fraction of the diaspora out of the global South. That vast displacement, which shows no signs of letup, supplies Mairesse with her unstable narrative tectonics. Her characters’ identity shuttles from subservient native handmaiden to urbane and privileged Westerner, and partway back as well, and this malleability finds expression in the rotating point of view, switching off among three principals. Though a family, they each have a different home base, and indeed a different notion of their own names: mother Immaculata, daughter Blanche, and grandchild Stokely.
The oldest of the three can recall a time when she was dumbfounded by the sight of a white man, so far from any ocean. Spending most of the novel in her native Butare, the woman knows she’s far from “immaculate” at heart, and can never forget her Tutsi name. That word, roughly “the mute,” proves significant for her recovery from the genocide. The grandson, on the other hand, is proud to wear the name of a Black American radical, and around his hometown of Bordeaux, he corrects people’s mistakes with African geography. As for Blanche, she’s a mixed bag to match her creator Mairesse. She’s the most mobile of the major players, and her return to Butare, three years after the worst of the killing, triggers the novel’s horrific opening, actually the mother’s halting recollections. As for the younger woman’s name, she was raised to speak Kinyarwanda in the home but French everywhere else, and she grasps the advantages of a name that translates as “white.” Indeed, Blanche’s father is French, a colonial landowner.
Immaculata’s luck in marriage, however, soon sours. Among the things she’s keeping silent about is a lover, a local, and then her whole world shifts once the Belgian protectorate becomes the Rwandan nation. Her second child, a boy fully African, is born to fallen status; the Hutus call him a “cockroach.” The devastation that follows spares the mother and these two children⎯something else established in the first pages⎯but while Blanche escapes to join the French bourgeoisie, and to raise Stokely accordingly, her stepbrother’s time in the revolutionary army has left him, like Immaculata (who survived the hard way, starving and hiding), with a trauma perhaps incurable. Inevitably that trauma shakes the grandson in Bordeaux as well, demonstrating how these labels we wear always threaten betrayal:
Word are often like pretty decorated calabashes, hollow and cracked underneath their shiny surface, or treacherous⎯when a snake was hidden inside, using the night to slip along its narrow neck and fill a heart with suspicion and enmity.
The extended metaphor reveals the ripeness of Alison Anderson’s translation, careful work that prioritizes investing this author’s complex construction, her hop-scotch across half a century and the Mediterranean Sea, with vitality and soul. My sketch of the plot suggests something of how Mairesse sustains suspense, raising a question in one perspective, one time sequence, and then answering it in another. But I’ve barely hinted at how the back-and-forth can provoke a bone-deep ache or prompt a sudden grin. If I were to single out a particular triumph, it would be the fingertip detail with which All Your Children handles love, more calculating in Immaculata’s case, more heedless in Blanche’s. If I were to mention similar accomplishments, they’d be two Booker winners, Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies (a winner in translation) and Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. As it happens, overseas the novel has already captured several prizes, but whatever its final standing, it must be appreciated not only for peering bravely into one African hellhole, but also for looking over a whole world in search of safe haven. As Blanche puts it: “The soul of a nation is a perpetual building site.”