I remember hearing a joke on French radio in 1994. The rock singer Johnny Hallyday — not the brightest spark — was being sent up by a couple of comics. The one playing Johnny was asked what he thought of the conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis. He replied that he liked U2’s latest album and he thought Dustin Hoffman was very good in the movie — so what was there to get upset about? Loud laughter. It was the sort of ghoulish playground joke that is made around the world as a knee-jerk response to some catastrophe, celebrity death or hideous accident, but it must have been aired before the full horror of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 was revealed. As the news began to emerge about what really had happened in the small central African country from April to July, it became clear that the world had witnessed another shocking example of man’s easy inhumanity to man. All jokes died on people’s lips.
Most of us are familiar with the so-called Chinese curse: “May you live in interesting times.” I hadn’t realized until recently that there was a follow-up to it that goes (I paraphrase): “And may you come to the attention of powerful people.” These bland phrases resonated in my mind as I read Naomi Benaron’s audacious and compelling first novel, “Running the Rift.” It’s the story of a young man’s coming of age set against the background of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, during which the overwhelmingly dominant ethnic group in Rwanda, the Hutus, set out to exterminate the minority, the Tutsis. It’s impossible to count the number of Tutsi deaths that took place over the course of the rampage — there was no documentation, unlike with the Nazi or the Khmer Rouge genocides — but the final figure that most authorities agree on is somewhere around 800,000.