Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Philippe Stassen
translation/introduction by Alexis Siegel
First Second Books, 2006.
(originally published in French by Dupuis in 2000)
96 pages, tradepaper
Pulled from my list of First Second books that looked intriguing (and was available at the Library)
“We are in Rwanda in the days leading to a swift and gruesome genocide; the world will watch and do nothing. In less than a hundred days, eight hundred thousand human beings will be hacked to death.
Moment by moment, piece by piece, J.P. Stassen skillfully builds a masterpiece, an unforgettable tale that probes man’s inhumanity to man. His eloquence, his storytelling power, and his sheer poetry elevate this harrowing story to the rank of a testimonial to one of the darkest chapters in recent human history.
With great skill and understanding, Stassen’s Deogratias takes us back and forth in time, showing only before and after the killings — and inexorably revealing the grip of madness and horror on one young boy and his country.
Difficult, beautiful, honest, and heartbreaking, this is a masterwork by a major artist of our time.” ~First Second dust jacket
The images are haunting. The story disturbing. And the lingering and deepening sadness followed me for hours after the read; and into this next day.
Jean-Philippe Stassen’s Deogratis begins in the present with the young man Deogratis, ragged, torn, and unwanted. But before he can be rudely dismissed we are pulled into the story by someone who remembers Deogratis from before the Genocide. Who Deogratis was before slowly unfolds through flashbacks and present-day conversations; other characters are similarly handled. It isn’t until the nearing end that you begin to think about which characters we have only met in the past.The shifting into the past is wonderfully placed, subtle in its transition, but not so impossible to detect as to create disruptive confusion. Deogratis, kempt and spotless white clothing before, eyes not in that perpetual widened gaze of horror. Yet the subtlety (no change in panel shape or outline or tint) compresses the before and after into a constant present state of existing. The middle is there, too; saturating even the before. Some characters would separate out the before, but Deogratias is less sure. Bosco: “before [the whites] came, before they sowed the seeds of division, before they enslaved us, we lived peacefully here…” Deogratias, head down and looking away, “…in a land of milk and honey.” (19)
Stassen would educe a humanitarian response for another human being. He writes/draws human characters in this fictional portrayal. Stassen doesn’t contrive a saccharine innocence so as to later butcher it and evoke stainless tears. All the characters are flawed in a significantly human way. Still, there is an innocence/vulnerability at the center, in the living of the characters who are victims. They are surrounded and then enshrouded in the darkness of politicians, military men, religious leaders, anyone in power; notably all adult men.
There are moments when Degratias is visually transformed into a dog, yet Stassen doesn’t spare the reader the way Art Spiegelman does in Maus I & II. Stassen chose faces for his representatives. And few of the faces are particularly endearing. Stassen chooses a more oblique perspective to distance the reader. He threads mysteries to compel and ease the reader into the revelations in store for them. The story is carefully crafted, gradually revealing more lines than initially anticipated. The metaphors (in dialogue and imagery) find a fullness by book’s end.
Deogratis is mad (both crazy and enraged). He is destroyed and evidently haunted. The recent events seem explanation enough, in the scratched surface of an understanding: he lived through a genocide, he likely lost his young love, he witnessed gruesome things. But the extent of the horror leaves the reader gasping. Stassen goes to great lengths to shove the reader on their naked ass into the icy carnage of Deogratis’ world and Deogratis’ soul. Stassen turned on the burner and we realize too late that the water has begun to boil. The reader cannot escape, nor look away—though I tried; trying to read quickly, swallowing back the bile.
It is grotesque what one human is capable of perpetrating against another human. Whether graphically depicted or strongly inferred, Stassen is determined to touch the sledgehammer to heartstring—and he doesn’t do this gratuitously. Stassen’s beautiful artwork is moved by the necessity to educate and remind, unraveling a terrible untold story.
Does Deogratis find some sense of redemption? I feel like his must be tied up with the whole, and I am fearfully unsure. I longed for a sense of healing. I long for an understanding. Deogratias? It longs for a memory, not absolution (“It wasn’t a confession!”). The intervention comes too late. The stars that witnessed everything didn’t come down, they only watched and tormented Deogratis with their existence (cold and unyielding and too far away).
Translator, Alexis Siegel, provides an introduction (“From the Depths”). This is wonderfully helpful in providing a timeline of events leading up to and after the Rwandan Genocide, as well as highlighting key figures. The commentary tries to be fair, but the ways in which the Rwandans (as well as other countries) have been forsaken is all too glaring. The intro helps inform the reader; not to be skipped over or neglected whether read before or after Deogratias.
Deo gratias (ˈdāō ˈgrätsēəs), exclamation thanks be to God. late 16th century: Latin. ~Oxford English Dictionary.
My copy is lent from the Library’s TEEN shelf (where my young daughter is prone browse these days). The language is very coarse, the sexual themes are incapable of misunderstanding, and the rendered violence is quite graphic. Something of which to be mindful, if you’ve a young one around who is taking up the habit of picking up the books you are reading. I’ve had to keep this one and David Sedaris’ Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk on the high shelves this week.
“Only a few of the panels depict the actual massacre; still, the ghastly subject matter, sexual themes and coarse language, along with the elliptical narrative structure, restrict this title to a mature audience. Nonetheless, the importance of the story and the heartbreaking beauty of its presentation make it an essential purchase.” Kirkus Reviews