Yesterday I went to the Librairie St-Paul, the only bookstore in Bujumbura, which makes it the only bookstore in Burundi, unless Ngozi, a university town in the north, has a bookstore I don’t know about. A lavender stucco monstrosity across from the American embassy. If the expansive exterior looked promising, the interior was a big disappointment.
The store was dark and dusty. Some of the shelves were entirely empty. The back shelves were lined with books on Catholicism, the lives of Mary, of Jesus, of the saints, of famous priests and missionaries, how to pray…with separate sections for each. On the front shelves were university textbooks in law, communication, French and economics. Scattered among the textbooks were more prayerbooks and writings of Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul, and more priest and saint biographies. Children’s books from France, obviously aimed at the expat market (what would a Burundian child do with a French book on “where does your last name come from?”) are scattered randomly in this mix. There is one small shelf of political science and history books on African themes, all about ten years old if not older. The dictionaries, in Kirundi, French and English, are behind glass, and you have to ask the saleswoman to look at them, just like in Russian shops. They cost as much as 30,000 francs ($25, nearly one-third of a teacher’s monthly pay and one-fifth of a government functionary’s salary).
“Do you have any novels?” I asked the saleswoman.
“Let me show you what we have,” she said. Propped up on a table, among a few priest biographies, were three Norwegian murder mysteries in French translation, once again over $15 each.
A society without novels?
In my own childhood, I was surrounded by piles of books, and by people who read. The characters in Charlotte’s Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Ralph S. Mouse and books full of myths and legends were as real to me as the neighbours. I read everything I could get my hands on, and my favourite place in my grandmother’s neighbourhood was the Baltimore County Public Library. As I got older, I read fewer novels and more travel books and books on current events. But all the same, I couldn’t imagine a society without books. And I wasn’t alone. Our town was so swamped with books, new and old, that we gave them away free at the book exchange.
Here, on the contrary, books are gold. When Damien goes to Europe, when Jean-Charles goes to Canada, they bring back boxes of books. Both times that I’ve come here, people– my students, my neighbours, my colleagues, even hotel staff– have thrown themselves on my books like pigeons on a pile of seed. It doesn’t matter if the book in question is a travelogue about Afghanistan or Ethiopia, a novel, a treatise on child soldiers, a grammar book or a beat-up French-English dictionary. Books are gold. Why? Because books coming into the country are taxed at over 30 per cent, and the domestic publishing industry is only good for informational pamphlets and prayerbooks.
The internet connection doesn’t always lend itself to online reading either.
If you’re reading this, sitting in front of your computer in Baltimore or Ottawa or Berne or anywhere else, you probably like to get away once in a while. After you’re finished your trip to Bujumbura with me, you may go on a trip to South Sudan with a BBC reporter, or Lithuania with another travel blogger, or 19th century England with Jane Austen or another classic author, or into a fantasyland of vampires and pretty girls…you get the idea.
In a society without fiction, where the internet is still beyond the means of a large number of people, that does not happen. People don’t have the means to escape.
A society with only prayerbooks and textbooks is a society that encourages people to bow down, to memorize and to do as instructed (especially when you take into account the teaching methodology, imported from early 20th century Belgium; once when I was teaching here, I had six people skip my class in one day, and when I asked why, someone said that they had to memorize a chapter word-for-word for an exam the following day; Professor K, although a product of the same system, rails against the “parrots” that result)– not to analyze, not to move back and forth in time and space, not to aspire to something better. To lower their hands in front of God’s plan and to repeat what’s asked of them. A society of sheep.
Kapuscinski said it best: “How can someone aspire to something that does not exist in their imagination?”
A society without fiction is a society that doesn’t dream.