Steamy sex and genocide are combined in a potent mix in this 2008 novel by the Swiss writer Lukas Bärfuss. The "Hundert Tage" of the title refers to the one hundred days of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide that resulted in the slaughter of one million people. The narrator is David Hohl, a Swiss national sent to Kigali as an administrator for the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation to assist in building a Swiss-style democratic and prosperous state in the heart of Africa. But what begins as a personal humanitarian quest devolves into unimaginable horror, as Hohl (which means "hollow") finds himself as more than an innocent bystander in the unfolding mass murder. This is no Hotel Rwanda, where acts of individual heroism restore our faith in humanity. There are no heroes in this bleak story and the idea of a shared "humanity" is nothing more than a sick joke.
Katy Darbyshire has an excellent review and detailed plot summary of the novel on her blog.
Lukas Bärfuss does a good job in portraying the pre-genocide Rwanda of the early 1990s as a quiet, temperate country of seemingly placid people, willing to learn from their European masters about the latest agricultural techniques and political administration. The Swiss Agency is described as a perfect, stifling bureaucracy that reminds one more of a UBS branch office in suburban Zurich. The humanitarian aid workers are proud of their "development projects", but suffer from pangs of guilt that the truly needy people are far away in the tropical jungles of the Congo. Things are just too comfortable in Rwanda.
The Swiss and other foreigners are, of course, blind to the truth ; blind to the true nature of the the country they are "developing" with their millions of Swiss Francs in aid. They don't bother to learn the native dialect, since the beloved people dutifully learn French. Only one foreigner can see behind the peaceful facade - Hohl's corrupt Swiss friend Missland:
Missland behauptete ..., die Leute besässen eine verstecktes Gesicht, ein hässliches, gewalttätiges, eines, das sie keinem zeigten.. (Missland insisted that the people had a hidden face, an ugly, violent face that they showed to no one...)
Missland is the only one who is not taken by surprise when the killing starts,and, significantly, the corrupt Missland is the only one who actually saves lives while the other Swiss flee in terror from the beloved recipients of their country's aid.
The first half of Hundert Tage is quite good in describing Kingali, the lives of the Swiss aid workers, and building the sense of foreboding leading up to period of genocide. The second half is, to my reading, less successful. The transformation of his lover Agathe from ambitious middle class girl who wants to live in Brussels to savage murderer is not entirely convincing, nor is the attempt to equate violent sex with mass killing. Some of the plot lines become heavy-handed, as when Hohl rescues a vulture from death, only to end up killing dogs to nurture the huge bird back to health. And Hohl is overly shrill in his condemnation of the Swiss for their (unwitting) complicity in the genocide.
Despite these shortcomings, Hundert Tage is a brave and original attempt to make sense through fiction of one of the most terrible tragedies of the last century. Lukas Bärfuss is known for his plays, and I'm certain he could make an excellent screenplay from this novel, a Swiss counterpart to The Ugly American.