The Past Ahead - written by a native Rwandan and translated by a specialist in Francophone literature - is the product of the kind of intense emotional distillation that's typically employed for poetry. The slim volume is weighty in subject - its two main characters, Niko and Isaro, are survivors of the genocide in Rwanda. It is also a novel-within-a-novel.
Niko comes to life as a character written by Isaro, a young woman who abruptly leaves college and a comfortable upbringing by her adopted parents in France to return to her native country on a mission to write the unheard stories of those affected by the bloodshed.
The first chapter opens by plunging the reader into the near-end of Niko's story as he goes into hiding among a group of primates. We pick up his twisted history and begin to understand his behavior only through periods of flashback and memory, which are achingly sad and fraught with violence.
Niko is completely mute, making it especially poignant that he is given a voice through Isaro. Whether his character is drawn from Isaro's interviews with the people or strictly from her imagination is left ambiguous, and perhaps that is for the best. The thought that his life might be drawn from memory and not imagination gives his story a sense of gritty realism that grounds the abrupt temporal shifts and musical language in his sections of the novel.
Isaro's story unfolds in a more linear fashion. She is a fascinating, complex character who is wise beyond her years, impulsive, adaptive, and struggling to make sense of her past. Her pain takes shape in the nightmarish world of Niko. Through him, we see specific acts of horror, both real and imagined, and through Isaro, we get a sense of the vastness of her country's tragic recent history.
My only complaint about the book is that Niko's parts are divided into numbered paragraphs, which led me on a wild goose chase through the pages to see if the numbers build into a greater meaning. If they do, I missed it. If they don't, I see the numbering as more of a distraction than a useful device. However, that distraction is a tiny price to pay to bask in the succulent, rich prose that makes up the pages.