Funnybook Babylon

July 7, 2007

MoCCA Reviews – First Second Books pt. 1 – Deogratias – A Tale of Rwanda

Every once in a while, I’m reminded of why comic books are one of the few mediums that I cherished as a child that I still love with the same fervor today. I stopped playing video games when I was ten, stopped caring about anime when I was sixteen, and only have an occasional interest in television. For me, comics are a unique form of storytelling that allows the reader to rely on his/her own imagination to propel the story and develop character, and that achieves an economy in storytelling (due to its visual elements) that is rare in prose. I forget this too often, especially when most discussions I have about comics are about the minutiae of the lives of super-heroes.


I bought this book on a whim from the First Second table at MoCCA, and to be honest, I wouldn’t have picked it up if the table wasn’t offering a ‘buy two, get one free’ deal. Why? No matter how expertly done, there is a limit to my tolerance for this kind of work. Although I understand the appeal of fiction designed to illuminate tragedy, it doesn’t really work for me. The imposition of a narrative structure never seems to do justice to circumstances that were murky and complex. Just as an example of what I’m talking about, take the introduction. Written by its translator, Alexis Siegel, Deogratias’ introduction illustrates the problem that I generally have with this kind of fiction. I would not want to presume the writer’s intent, but I felt that the discussion of the massacres (including the Zaire invasion) that followed the genocide, causing the deaths of around 250,000 people was unnecessarily truncated. The problem with civil war, and the chaos that follows is that there are no real victories, and no good guys. Now this isn’t Mr. Siegel’s fault, he was doing the service of providing the reader with some historical context, and he has noted in an interview that it was partially intended to spur further reading on the subject (1). Which is completely understandable. I just don’t know whether any limited context is enough, or whether one person’s story can stand in for the story of a nation. Maybe I’m just being cynical. People might read these kinds of works and become motivated to read more, even if its on a distressing topic. So, when I picked Deogratias up, I was weighted by my general biases against this kind of work. To my surprise, it didn’t really tell the story of Rwanda at all, and was all the more powerful for it.

Deogratias, a graphic novel written and drawn by Jean-Phillipe Stassen, with translation by Alexis Siegel, is a moving account of the impact of the Rwandan genocide on the nation from the perspective of a boy. It took me twenty minutes to settle on ‘moving’ as a descriptive term, because no word felt strong enough to capture how I felt after finishing the book. Reviews describe Deogratias as ‘vivid’, ‘intense’, and ‘heartbreaking’. But after reading it, no language can accurately convey the horror of this book, or of the events that inspired it.

I expected a tale of straight-forward terror, of perpetually escalating atrocity ending in genocide. I pictured a work that would be akin to the Anne Frank diary. Instead of those more traditional perspectives, Deogratias, the flawed protagonist of the work is not an innocent. He’s rude, obsessed with sex, and a little too enamored of urwagwa, a local alcoholic beverage. Moreover, he is a Hutu, and was not an explicit target of the escalating discrimination that led to the massacres. Stassen’s refusal to sentimentalize Deogratias, or any of the characters in this story, grounds it, and forces the reader to confront the reality of the events. This is not a parable. It’s not a tale of some far off incident that’s happening to the ‘other’ people in the developed world. I went to the bars a little too much when I were in college. I’ve flirted with a girl using the same lines used five minutes before on her friend. So when the coming of age story turns into a nightmare, the reader is drawn in, and cannot maintain any semblance of neutrality.

The story could have easily followed the experience of a victim, and would have been touching, but by choosing a person who’s a member of the favored ethnic group, Stassen makes it more complicated, adding an unexpected element of complicity. What would I do? If I sat in history class and the teacher described my fellow countrymen as interlopers, would I protest? If djs on the radio inveighed against the ‘cockroaches’ infiltrating the country, would I turn it off? Or would I nervously laugh along with it?
Propaganda in the Classroom

Stassen effortlessly shifts between two contrasting worlds: a Rwanda slowly returning to normalcy, and a Rwanda imperceptibly drifting towards chaos. The present day version of Deogratias is presented as a shell-shocked youth, trapped in his memories, craving alcohol. Through memory, we are transported to the chain of events that shattered his life. The art contributes to this atmosphere, as Stassen uses enough detail in his work to ground the reader in reality, while simultaneously leaving himself enough room to delve into some of the dream-like aspects of the story (which mostly consist of the delusions of the present day Deogratias). It’s a style that is somehow modern and traditional at the same time. As the story is told, we are also introduced to a powerful force that shapes Rwandan life (as well as the lives of many developing nations): the Catholic Church, which both educates and oppresses the people. Since Rwanda has few easily exploitable resources, and was not considered an ideal tourist spot for Westerners, the Church was responsible for providing a structure that official institutions in Rwanda were unable to provide, and was responsible for the education of many people. But the clergy in Deogratias also have sexual relationships with parishioners, and condescend to the native Rwandans in troubling ways. There are also hints of French involvement in the poisoning of the national discourse in the form of a French officer who is seen harassing the Tutsi minority, and relentlessly pursuing the Rwandan females.

Both of those elements are familiar to the traditional story about a developing nation in decline. Churches and other Western religious institutions provide desperately needed material support but delegitimize cultural identity and long-held traditions. Advanced nations provide military and economic support to brutal regimes in order to preserve order, or extract resources. Stassen does a commendable job at touching on these issues without transforming Deogratias into a polemic. Once the massacres begin, the positive aspects of outside influences recede into the background. The church is powerless. The world turns a blind eye.

In the end, though, none of that matters. All that matters is that a large number of people died, and that those who live are permanently scarred. By making this story a personal one, Stassen denies readers the ability to distance themselves from the events. By avoiding an explicit depiction of the genocide, Stassen denies us our prepared response to tragedy, and prevents us from easily forgetting the events.

When I began the book, I despaired at how mentally ill Deogratias had become, but his response seemed like the only sane response to a chaotic world. But by the end of the book, I didn’t know what to think. In comic books, we generally expect to read the exploits of people who explicitly choose a side, and act in clearly defined ways. But life isn’t like that. We can’t all be rebels or revolutionaries. When the world devolves into hell, how can one not be corrupted by it? And who should we blame? Is it the fault of the church? The French government (and by extension the West)? The Hutu extremists? The Hutus who stood by and watched or reluctantly collaborated? Or is that the wrong question?

(1) In case the reader is interested, a partial list includes: (a) Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, by Romeo A. Dallaire; (b) We Wish to Inform You That… by Phillip Gourevitch; (c) Left to Tell, by Immaculee Ilibagiza; (d) Machete Season, by Jean Hatzfield (and others); (e) The Order of Genocide by Scott Strauss; and The Media and the Rwandan Genocide by Kofi Annan (and others).

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