After stating in my last review that I find fictional uses of September 11 to be disconcerting, it’s a strange twist for me to then turn to a graphic novel recounting of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Truth is, the deeper down the graphic novel rabbit hole that I dive, the more blown away I am by the creativity and introspection shown by the amazing artists I’m discovering. When I saw Jean-Philippe Stassen’s Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda, I didn’t think twice about grabbing it from the library shelf. David Beauchard and Craig Thompson have more than convinced me that this medium is not only capable of respectfully dealing with tough topics, but it is also in many ways more appropriate when dealing with things that escape the limits of language itself.
I should have been clued in by the expurgated length of this novel that it wasn’t going to be terribly provocative; however, the topic alone more than fulfills that expectation. Even nearly 20 years later, I still can’t wrap my brain around how the world sat by as so many lives were brutally snuffed from existence. Then again, most of the things that humanity does to itself elude my understanding. The one thing that humans will probably never truly understand is human nature.
Stassen tells a very carefully controlled story, centering on the titular character Deogratias (a Latin liturgy meaning “thanks be to God”). We experience the outbreak of violence through this teenaged boy’s view as he watches his Hutu kinsmen rise up against the local Tutsi. Interspersed are moments embedded 5 years after the fact, in which we see how the events have irrevocably altered him…alterations that Stassen conveys in a rather interesting visual choice.
In some ways, it feels almost disrespectful to have condensed the events of this genocide into such a short novel. Then again, I don’t necessarily think I would have been able to absorb a visual account any longer than this, considering how bleakly explicit Stassen’s artwork became at times. There are some things you simply don’t need to see to comprehend how awful they were.
An obvious comparison at this time would, of course, be Art Spiegelman’s Maus, not only for the graphic treatment of a graphic historical event, but also for shared allegorical elements. Spiegelman’s groundbreaking novels, however, are far more complicated than Stassen’s tale. Still, I believe that Stassen pays subtle but deserved obeisance to Spiegelman’s novels through certain choices in his storytelling.
Final Verdict: As an interlude to something more probing and holistic, this is worth the time to read; however, as a stand-alone, it falls short of the greatness to which it could have transpired.