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The World, the Lizard and Me

Gil Courtemanche
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
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‘The writing is exquisite, the structure flawless’ – Literogo


The World, the Lizard and Me is a novel of testament to the plight of children caught up in the civil wars of Central Africa. First published in 2009, we are proud to be publishing the first English translation of this enthralling story. The World, the Lizard and Me follows the life of Claude Tremblay who, from the age of eleven has sought justice for thousands of voiceless victims. Now an investigator at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, he is pursuing Thomas Kabanga, a warlord charged with creating child soldiers in the Congo.

Defeated in court by a legal technicality, Claude abandons his usual professional detachment and decides to act alone. He finds himself in the growing chaos of the mining town of Bunia, searching for more evidence and eventually encountering Kabanga. Pitched from distant observation into the grim reality of an African power struggle, he is confronted by a form of justice different from any he has experienced before. He also encounters at first hand the results of the inhumanity of the lives of child soldiers, and is forced to reconsider the nature of love and the notion of normality.

Gil Courtemanche draws on his own experiences to write a novel of gripping immediacy. His Africa is a place unknown to many in the West, capable of encompassing extremes of humanity and brutality. The World, the Lizard and Me reveals and questions the motives of criminals and the effects and consequences of childhood. It is an enthralling story of war, work, obsession and the search for personal identity.

‘A voice that evokes humanity in all its depth and breadth, where the executioner and victim are brother and sister, where death is a daily occurrence. A voice I implore you to listen to... Through a felicitous mix of reportage and fiction, Courtemanche has powerfully portrayed a lucid character deeply engaged in a humanist quest.’ – Le Journal de Montréal


Review by Katherine Kirk, Literogo

Sunday, October 18, 2015

First published in French in 2009, The World, The Lizard and Me, Gil Courtemanche’s second last novel before his death in 2011, is not an easy book to read or review. The writing is exquisite, the structure flawless, the characters sympathetic, flawed and reflective of our global society. Courtemanche’s writing is profound. It is the subject matter, and the emotional effect of the book that makes this a difficult review to write.

 You know how the wind blows. You can’t grasp it or take it into your hands and capture it, but it’s all around, it envelops you and sometimes it slows you down. It rustles the leaves of quiet trees, changes the rhythm of a man who is walking, and who bends his back to push through the invisible force. In Africa, rumour is like the worst kind of wind, like a sandstorm. The wind goes where it wants to. No-one knows the origin of the wind of rumour, but it blows and chokes people, it makes them blind and mad. Sometimes, often, it kills and starts bloody conflicts.

The protagonist is a man named Claude Tremblay, who works as a political analyst for the International Criminal Court at The Hague. His role is to collect data from witness statements that can be used to build an objective, solid case against the warlord Thomas Kabanga, who is accused of (among other things) creating an army of 3000 child soldiers, torture, rape and murder. However, before he stands trial, his case is thrown out because of a procedural error, and Kabanga is freed. Disillusioned, Claude resigns from his position and follows Kabanga back to his homeland of Bunia, where he plans to bring Kabanga to justice.

“My father used to say that your can’t take the hatred out of hearts a century old. Here, every heart, even the child’s, is a century old. They are fed on stories and fables and old wounds, and you can write a name on every scar. Sometimes it is the name of someone’s family, but most of the time it’s the name of a group, an ethnicity. You have to understand the importance of the tribe. It’s what you call social security. The tribe is family and there’s no such thing as justice.”

When I started the book, I found Claude to have the arrogance and naivety that comes with white European privilege. Until he is eleven, he has no concept of the ills of the world; his parents shelter him from news of famine, death, war and genocide. However, when he does become aware of it, he pursues it relentlessly with what he calls “intellectual curiosity”. To be honest, I looked forward to seeing the character development that was to come: Claude had a long way to go. I wanted to see him go to the Ivory Coast and see true suffering. I wanted to see him become some kind of warrior for peace, an intellectual hero who saves the day. I, too, was naive, and arrogant.

How do you reconcile the search for truth with legalities? It is the first time I’ve asked myself that question, the first time I think that statutes and procedures and legal guidelines don’t guarantee the administration of justice. What if law were only an intellectual exercise with no relation to what is just, decent, and self-evident? Kabanga is guilty. Hundreds of thousands of people experienced his guilt in their flesh. Why do we have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, like in an ordinary murderer’s trial? And whose reasonable doubt – that of thousands of victims, or of three cold-eyed, distant judges who have never set foot in Ituri?

The novel is short, coming in at only 191 pages, but within those pages there are layers and layers of pain. The pain of torture, rape and the theft of childhood innocence. The pain of loneliness and social exclusion. The pain of loss, and the pain of failed love. Courtemanche skillfully carries the reader’s emotions through the sea of pain with exquisitely worded analogies and metaphors. Comparing the loss of childhood innocence to the Bay of Paimpol, he describes how just as the clams that are starved of water during the spring tide produce the best meat, Claude’s deprivation of knowledge of the pain of the world, until he discovered it on his own, gave his understanding of it an added depth. Perhaps we lack the passion and commitment to fight the evils of the world because we are desensitized to them; in Claude’s case, that desensitization never took place, and so it becomes the driving force in his life, to the expense of ordinary human relationships.

Reading the world press casts me into a despair that has nothing theoretical about it. Now that Kabanga is free, my life is slipping away, like blood dripping slowly from a wound next to the heart…My ability to analyse and synthesize disappeared with Kabanga. Astonishingly, I discovered anger, rage, real revolt, rejection of the established order, of the rules and conventions that once governed me. And if these emotions are so strong and so clear, they must have been in me all the while, and I was denying them, I was wrapping them carefully in sheets of silk paper known as pragmatism and my rational method, I was filing them away as if they were items of objective information… I was a coward.

Courtemanche’s lyrical and evocative analogies and descriptions, interspersed with Claude’s emotional distance, gives the novel a haunting, quiet tone. Perfectly translated by David Homel, Courtemanche whispers of atrocities with sensitivity, and a simmering anger at the injustice he experienced during his own stint at the ICC. As Claude Tremblay struggles to understand his first-hand encounters of the atrocities he has witnessed, and his own influence on the forces that are driving the conflict, the reader is both repelled by him, and filled with pity. He tries to distract himself from the trauma by focusing on trivialities – a new set of clothes, his next meal, alcohol – just as we might, after witnessing news reports of atrocities, change the channel and watch a comedy instead. Claude throws light on our own weakness and failures as human beings. That is what makes this book so difficult to read.

Will I ever be able to speak and act like a man, and move from cold observation and meticulous analysis to words and actions? I think so, even if I know nothing of the process that appears to be so natural, but is baited with traps, by the illusions of the educated and aware man: the feeling of being superior, the certainty of the analysis, the incomprehension of chance and the unconscious. Only my ignorance of man will keep me from being a man. How many emotions have I repressed that way, abortions of my own self?

Gil Courtemanche’s resume of humanitarian action against oppression and violence speaks for itself. This novel is a quietly powerful climax to that work, and should be required reading in any University Humanities course. It is painful to read, because it both describes many different kinds of pain, and reveals our own weakness to us. It is painful because the violence depicted in it is graphic, and because that graphic violence is not gratuitous but a reflection of true occurrences that we tune out and pretend are not happening, simply because they are happening to people other than us. Reading this novel is a necessary pain, and it has been masterfully created.

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