Interview with Jean-Félix de La Ville Baugé, author of “Magnifique”.
AB: Jean-Félix, you’ve just published a book, Magnifique, set in Rwanda. How did the idea of Rwanda come? You seem to know a lot about the country and what happened there, so what is the origin of the novel from a personal point of view?
Answer: It’s always difficult to know the origin of a novel, I’m always surprised by novelists who know why they wrote such and such a thing at such and such a time for such and such a reason… I think it’s all mysterious, I only know one thing: I was in Rwanda in the summer of 1994, on a mission for Solidarités International. I also know a second thing: I write by sitting on a sofa, closing my eyes and waiting for something to happen, for a voice to speak to me. In writing, I transcribe in fact the voice that speaks to me. Over the past 30 years, between each of my four novels, there has been a voice linked to Rwanda that has spoken to me; one moment it was a Rwandan woman, the next a French officer, a Hutu priest or a Tutsi officer. These voices were of all kinds, but they fell silent, and then, at some point, the voice of Magnifique spoke out and didn’t stay silent. I wrote twenty-six drafts of books about Rwanda, and on the twenty-seventh, it was Magnifique’s voice that spoke to me from the first page to the last, without shutting up. That’s how the book was born.
AB: You’ve carried out many missions for humanitarian associations in various countries in crisis. Did the genocide in Rwanda, and your experience there, help you to understand what had happened and to put it across in your book? Did this mission play a more specific role than the others?
Answer: It’s true that I started in Rwanda, with Solidarités, then in Cambodia in the Khmer Rouge zones, so another genocide, then two years in Darfur, a zone where genocide was not characterized but where large-scale massacres took place, and then in Chechnya – there’s no need to describe this crisis… Two things struck me in Rwanda. Firstly, it was a genocide carried out with knives. There’s a difference between pressing a lever in a gas chamber, ordering a bombing raid on the Ukraine or taking a machete and chopping up a person you often knew. The second thing that really struck me was the incredible efficiency of this genocide. It’s linked to the first. In 100 days, we managed to kill between 800,000 and 1 million 200,000 people with bladed weapons, far more efficient than the Nazis with their gas chambers, trucks and machines.
AB: Without giving away the story, there are two main characters: Magnifique, which is the title of the book, and Jérôme, the ICRC delegate who meets Magnifique, a victim of the genocide. How do you introduce readers to their story?
Answer: My first novel was about a Frenchman who got lost in Asia, the second about a child who was raped in France in the 1960s, the third about a Russian grand duke in exile, and the fourth about Marilyn Monroe. People tell me that, basically, these are books where hope is not very present… This book, “Magnifique”, is a turning point in my work, because it brings hope. But what kind of hope? Is hope simply a story about a man and a woman building a life together? No, that’s not what hope is.
The hope is that one day, an ICRC delegate, who spends a lot of time in offices as part of a classic humanitarian life, will get bored. To distract himself, he has papers to sign at the hospital. One day, he’s signing hospital admission orders when he sees a truck lowering a woman onto a stretcher. He immediately rushes to the woman for no reason and follows her. She’s unconscious, doesn’t say a word, but for weeks he tells her stories. For me, that’s where hope lies. In other words, we don’t know why a man fell in love with a girl in an unlikely place, and the story goes on. Perhaps the image I keep of this hope is the fact that this woman wakes up from time to time and sees a head of hair above her, she doesn’t understand at all what this head of hair is doing there. She goes back to sleep and every time she wakes up, she sees this guy saying “Hello Miss! How are you?” and she goes back to sleep… for me, there’s hope!
AB: “Magnifique”, thank you Jean-Félix!
Publisher : Télémaque
Book available in bookshops or on ligne
Jean-Félix de La Ville Baugé
Jean-Félix de La Ville Baugé has published four novels, including Dieu regardait ailleurs (Plon, 2013) and Votre fils (Plon, 2004). In the summer of 1994, he was sent by Solidarités International to the Gikongoro region of Rwanda. From 2004 to 2008, he headed Solidarités International in Darfur, then Médecins sans frontières in Chechnya. In 2009, he took charge of a newspaper in Moscow. In 2023, a new mission for MSF takes him to Iraq.