Sunday, July 26, 2015

Deogratias, a tale of Rwanda, Jeann-Philippe Stassen

A truly impressive graphic novel. The drawings, with their Van Gogh-esque thick black contours, the clear colors and the essential style make every object and person jump out of the page.

It's the story of Deogratias, a Hutu kid who lived through the times of the genocide in Rwanda. The horrors he's been witnessing cause him to lose his mind and he gradually becomes an alcoholic. There are many flashbacks to the time when he was younger and healthier, but I did not find that confusing. I think it's a story well told.

The story begins after the genocide. Deogratias is at a bar and meets an old friend, a French sergeant. Deogratias has flashbacks to his life before the genocide. He remembers the crush he had on a girl, and how he tried to spend time with her. In the flashbacks, Deogratias wasn't always a good person.

The editor's idea of writing a brief summary of Rwanda's recent history as a forward to the book was a very good one. This way, Westerners who did not have the chance to familiarize themselves with those events can learn a lot from this small book. And this is what makes this book so important: in our culture, there are some tragic facts of history that somehow seem to have been prioritized, and some others that are almost forgotten. For example, we are constantly reminded by the media about the WWII holocaust, but not much about what happened during the 20th century in Congo, or the unimaginable suffering that the poor people of Rwanda had to endure, on both sides, Hutus and Tutsis.

The graphic novel storytelling is powerful and eloquent. In part, this is a history lesson told from the eyes of a young boy and an older man, but also from natives and white immigrants, soldiers and missionaries. Once again, like in The Photographer, the choice of using the comic form succeeds in portraying a harsh reality, but at the same having a soothing or detaching effect, because the drawing elevates the objective reality to something a little idealized, almost abstract, and therefore not as hard to swallow.

As an aside note, the author doesn't seem to have a great esteem of Rwanda's missionaries and priests, as they come across as hypocrites and cowards in his story. One priest in particular, seems to be always trying to run away from any potential danger, having his own skin as a top priority, and not caring about anyone else. I'm sure this character is based on a real person, given that Stassen, the Belgian author, spent himself a lot of time traveling across the African continent and some time in Rwanda as well.

Read it, it's a gem.

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