Jean-Philippe Stassen’s Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda (:01 Books) is a very small story about a gaping wound in human history. Stassen follows an utterly average person through extraordinarily horrifying circumstances.
Stassen centers his story on Deogratias, a young Hutu. We see him before the genocide – prankish but basically decent beneath his bluster – and after – utterly shattered, almost feral. Past and present intersect, as Deogratias remembers more peaceful times with agonizing clarity.
He had friends, two Tutsi sisters — scholarly, spirited Benina and gentle, devout Apollinaria. He did odd jobs for the Belgian clergymen who were kind to him. He had a kid’s preoccupations – sex, beer, and talking big. He isn’t particularly noble or strong, but he rejects the worst of the ambient, anti-Tutsi racism that pervades the classroom, the radio waves, and really every aspect of daily life.
But that was Deogratias then, before many Hutus seized an opportunity to slaughter every Tutsi they could. Now, years later, he wanders the streets filthy and ragged, begging for food Urwagwa, the local beer. People from those appalling days of genocide are drifting back into Rwanda, sparking a new round of tragedy that’s smaller in scale but no less devastating.
Stassen also populates the book with competing perspectives. Venetia, Benina and Apollinaria’s mother, has been reduced to trading sex for favors to secure a better life for her daughters. In light of the restrictions of the culture, her choices have real moral force. Benina, the chief beneficiary of Venetia’s efforts, is torn between the opportunities afforded by her education and simmering outrage at the racial constructs that govern her life (and the condescension of the white Europeans she works for). Augustine is a highly educated member of a third ethnic group, the Twa, who has found he can make more money as a groundskeeper for those Europeans than he can by using his numerous academic degrees. Everyone is getting by as best they can in a society where a legacy of artificial differences makes it extraordinarily difficult. (Translator Alexis Siegel provides a well-written introduction covering Rwanda’s turbulent history.)
Stassen’s visuals are impressive. His script jumps through time, and the illustrations support that perfectly. Characters age credibly and organically, placing the individual sequences along the timeline of the story while creating investment in their journeys. He also renders Deogratias’s deteriorating mental state with care and imagination. His color work is very effective in establishing shifts in mood. Night and shadow take on different meanings, and even a sky full of stars can be menacing. Still, given the sensationalistic potential of the material, Stassen’s approach is ultimately very restrained. He never resorts to gore, letting the reader’s imagination fill in those horrible blanks.
Stassen’s aim seems to be understanding. He doesn’t want you to forgive people like Deogratias who were drawn into the tide of violence. Even Brother Philip, the jovial Belgian priest, can’t seem to manage that. But you can get inside those people and see events from their perspective.
Often, when artists approach these scarring moments of human history, they do so from the perspective of the heroic member of the majority who goes against the destructive tide of public sentiment to protect and rescue the victimized minority. Those stories are instructive and uplifting, but I think Stassen’s approach has a chilling value of its own.
(This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by :01 Books. Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda will be released in May.)