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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Oldest Orphan

Tierno Monénembo

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To purchase The Oldest Orphan

Title: The Oldest Orphan
Author: Tierno Monénembo
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 101 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Oldest Orphan - US
The Oldest Orphan - UK
The Oldest Orphan - Canada
L'Aîné des orphelins - Canada
L'Aîné des orphelins - France
  • French title: L'Aîné des orphelins
  • Translated by Monique Fleury Nagem
  • With an Introduction by Adele King
  • Awarded the Prix Tropiques, 2000

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Our Assessment:

B : effective if uneven chronicle of 1990s Rwanda

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
L'Humanité A+ 22/6/2000 Fabrice Lanfranchi
World Lit. Today A+ Winter/2001 Adele King

  From the Reviews:
  • "Grâce à une écriture rigoureuse, un style brillant qui allie de manière étonnante la mélopée et la sécheresse de l'effroi, une fausse naïveté et une réelle poésie, ainsi qu'une construction magnifique où les repaires temporels semblent s'effacer, se brouiller en un vaste carnaval monstrueux, Tierno Monénembo parvient au seuil d'un récit qui possède la force du mythe." - Fabrice Lanfranchi, L'Humanité

  • "L'Aîné des orphelins is one of the most powerful novels I have read in many years. (...) Faustin tells his story in a seemingly hard, cynical tone without illusions; he is fifteen when he is condemned to death, but already old in his knowledge of the evil of men, while still a child in other ways. He evokes horrors without much sentiment." - Adele King, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Oldest Orphan is narrated by Faustin Nsenghimana. He is fifteen, and he almost immediately reveals his dire predicament:

I'm fifteen years old. I'm in a cell in the Kigali central prison. I'm waiting to be executed.
       It is several years after the advents (avénements, as he calls the mass slaughter of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994), but these events are clearly still the inescapable and defining ones in Rwanda; what his specific crime was, and how it's connected to the advents, isn't revealed until much later.
       Faustin's narrative moves back and forth between present and past, slowly filling in the gaps of how he came to be in this final, fatal situation. The actual horrific events of the 1994 genocide -- and specifically the massacre in the church of Nyamata -- are only recalled and described in the final pages, as Faustin is only able to fully relive the traumatic experiences when he finds himself again hopelessly condemned.
       First Faustin describes his life after the genocide, from when he first fled Nyamata as a boy of barely ten. He soon gets picked up by a soldier (who is probably barely older than he is) from the rebel Tutsi army that re-took the country -- and finds himself suspected of being a génocidaire. There's little innocence left in this country -- but Faustin eventually tells his story and clearly is absolved. It's just to the Tutsi forces he reveals what happened however ("My mouth opened and words spurted out (....) My confession lasted a week."); he can't -- or won't -- bring himself to reveal it to the reader yet.
       When Kigali falls he makes his way there and lives by his wits, scrounging for food, earning a bit by watching cars. He finds a home of sorts in an "HQ", an abandoned, unfinished house where a whole gang of kids live together (and who are partners in petty crime). A woman, Claudine, takes an interest in Faustin , and arranges for him to move into an orphanage, but the orderly life-style there doesn't entirely suit him and he eventually flees back to the HQ.
       All along Faustin also hopes to eventually find his parents and siblings; he is eventually reunited with some of them, but the scars of the events of 1994 run deep.
       A brief well-paying alternative offers itself in the form of a cynical cameraman who films for any number of foreign broadcasters and hires Faustin to help him. The boy willingly plays his part, telling his story of the terrible genocidal days for the cameras -- except that it is invention, whatever the TV people want to hear (well-handled by Monénembo):
when we left the BBC people, I had become as good an actor as those I used to see on the TV at the Fraternité bar and falling off horses as if they had been hit by real bullets.
       Faustin's good luck doesn't last: he commits the crime that gets him sent to jail. Claudine gets him a lawyer, but Faustin doesn't help himself by voicing his opinions at his trial (after "rotting in a rat hole for two years", in the horrible prison). But it's not clear that he could be helped. It's a few years after the genocidal massacres, but the situation is still unsettled:
In fact, there's no more real law. There's nothing authentic left. We're on the threshold of a new life. The whole thing needs to be redone: history, geography, government, customs
       Faustin wasn't destroyed by events (and, especially, the advents), but they have marked him like they have marked the whole country. He tries to put his life together as best he can, but it's a brutal, unforgiving world -- and he can't fully embrace the well-meaning foreign help (from Claudine and at the orphanage) that might keep him safe. His crime is a terrible one, but understandable (and it's one of the major weaknesses of the book that he is sentenced to death for it; given the situation (and, especially, his age at the time) it seems inconceivable that this would happen as it is described).
       The Oldest Orphan effectively describes a country completely undone, trying to cope with the unthinkable and unspeakable. Faustin gets by, more or less, but the advents catch up with him, and in the powerful last scenes they are finally fully dredged up again, what actually happened to him and his family in those days revealed, well evoked by Monénembo in all its horrible absurdity.
       The novel a solid portrait of a young boy growing up in these conditions, and the tone of the narrative -- skipping about, not always bothering with much detail -- seems right given the young narrator. But the text also feels rushed, and one wishes it would linger over many of the parts.
       Faustin's fate weakens the effect of the book: though the death sentences throughout the book were even more absurdly and unjustly arbitrary, his grates more. Author Monénembo felt compelled to condemn him to death, but unfortunately couldn't find a more convincing way of doing it.
       There are impressive parts to the book, especially the haunting scenes in Nyamata, but Monénembo wasn't patient enough to present a fuller picture of the genocide and the aftermath -- and even the slice of life he did choose is not fully developed. A solid effort with some exceptional parts, but not quite enough to it.

       Adele King's brief introduction covers all the basic information readers should be equipped with, from biographical detail about the author to how the book came to be written (as part of the Fest'Africa project, Rwanda: écrire par devoir de mémoire), to background information about Rwanda and the genocide (including a description of those parts of the novel based on actual events and people).

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The Oldest Orphan: Reviews: Other books by Tierno Monénembo under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Tierno Monénembo (Thierno Saïdou Diallo) was born in Guinea in 1947. He has written numerous books and currently lives in France.

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