Stassen's Tale

Continuing our tour of First Second's spring releases we come to Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda. Jean-Philippe Stassen creates a small, brutal story that resonates far beyond its pages. The titular character, Deogratias, grows from a boy to a man over the course of the story, yet when we meet him at his oldest, he seems to have regressed to the mentality of a child (or animal). Through a series of flashbacks, we begin to see who Deogratias was and what his world was like before genocide ripped Rwanda apart.

Through these flashbacks we're introduced to two sisters, Benina and Apollinaria, the closest thing this story has to heroes. The sisters are both the targets of Deogratias' affection, and while Apollinaria has little interest in Deogratias, Benina is much more receptive. Stassen skillfully depicts these three growing from children to teenagers over the course of the story, impressively conveying their physical, mental and emotional growth. Unfortunately, Deogratias is a Hutu while the sisters are Tutsi, the subject of derision and eventually genocide by the Hutu majority.

Stassen chooses to limit the violence to a few scenes, almost exclusively in the background, instead focusing on the emotional and psychological ramifications of the violence on Deogratias and the rich cast of characters. In the flashbacks he offers insight into an imperfect community, but one in which the three friends have found a way to be happy. Even that happiness, though, came at a high price to the adults who care for the children.

As the story gains momentum, a sense of foreboding overtakes it and the mystery of just what happened during the genocide to leave Deogratias in the state he's in weighs heavily on the narrative. By the end, Stassen has answered those questions in the most real and therefore devastating way possible. This is a book that glorifies nothing about those terrible events and their aftermath, not even the possibility of pyrrhic victories. It is not about heroism or sacrifice or anything except the cost of such atrocity, both to the world and to one little boy.

Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda deservedly won the Goscinny Prize, a partner award of the Angoulême International Comics Festival. David Welsh digs a bit deeper (and comes out with a much better review) over at Precocious Curmudgeon. Available May 2, 2006.



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