Monday, 21 September 2020

Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga

Igifu by Scholastique Mukasonga
First published in French as L'Iguifou in France by Editions Gallimard in 2010. English language translation by Jordan Stump published by Archipelago Press on the 17th September 2020.

How I got this book:
Received a review copy from the publisher via NetGalley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The stories in Igifu summon phantom memories of Rwanda and radiate with the fierce ache of a survivor. From the National Book Award finalist who Zadie Smith says, "rescues a million souls from the collective noun genocide."

Scholastique Mukasonga's autobiographical stories rend a glorious Rwanda from the obliterating force of recent history, conjuring the noble cows of her home or the dew-swollen grass they graze on. In the title story, five-year-old Colomba tells of a merciless overlord, hunger or igifu, gnawing away at her belly. She searches for sap at the bud of a flower, scraps of sweet potato at the foot of her parent's bed, or a few grains of sorghum in the floor sweepings. Igifu becomes a dizzying hole in her stomach, a plunging abyss into which she falls. In a desperate act of preservation, Colomba's mother gathers enough sorghum to whip up a nourishing porridge, bringing Colomba back to life. This elixir courses through each story, a balm to soothe the pains of those so ferociously fighting for survival. 

Her writing eclipses the great gaps of time and memory; in one scene she is a child sitting squat with a jug of sweet, frothy milk and in another she is an exiled teacher, writing down lists of her dead. As in all her work, Scholastique sits up with them, her witty and beaming beloved.

Having been moved by Scholastique Mukasonga's memoir of her childhood, The Barefoot Woman, which I read a couple of years ago, I jumped at the chance to read and review this new English translation of her short story collection, Igifu. Igifu translates as 'hunger' and is the title of the first story, a disturbingly powerful account of a five year old girl slowly starving to death. It is heart-rending to read, yet so beautifully written and I was reminded of how I felt reading Jack London's classic tale, To Build A Fire.

Igifu, the book, is a collection of five short stories, each of which took me deeply into aspects of Rwandan life pre- and post-genocide. Mukasonga vividly illustrates the daily lives of Tutsi people who lived under extreme circumstances, displaced and intimidated, for years before the genocide violence finally erupted, and the stories Fear and Grief powerfully convey their eponymous emotions. The Glorious Cow describes the aching void left in a community by the loss of their prized cattle herds around which their lives had formerly revolved. And in The Curse Of Beauty, possibly my favourite of the stories although I thought each of the five equally maintained Mukasonga's high standards, we follow the life of Helena who is feted yet also excluded, purely because of her physical appearance.

Igifu isn't an easy read, but I loved every minute I spent engrossed in these stories and am very grateful to Archipelago Press for this opportunity to read Mukasonga's work in translation as I know my own French isn't up to capturing all the detail and nuances of this masterful prose. 

Search Literary Flits for more:
Books by Scholastique Mukasonga / Short stories / Books from Rwanda

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