Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda is a graphic novel that tells the fictional story of a young Rwandan, Deogratias, a Hutu, and his journey to madness and depravity during the mass genocide that occurred in the country in the early 1990’s. The author, Belgian J.P. Stassen received the Goscinny Prize for Deogratious, which awards graphic novelists in their craft.
The prologue for the book, provided by Alexis Siegel, catches the reader up on the true-life events of the Rwandan mass genocides. In the aftermath of World War I, Belgian forces took control of the country and ethnically divided its people into two groups: the Hutu, the dark-skinned people of the south, and the Tutsi, the fairer-skinned villagers of the north. Major global forces, such as the United States and the United Nations, refuse to offer relief to the persecuted Tutsi people - a sad fact that still resonates in history today.
The ethnic tension built between the two tribes comes to a head when Rwandan president Habyarimana’s is attacked and blown from the sky. The Hutu collectively blame the Tutsi for the attack, and the resulting hatred and violence against the people sparked the largest act of that kind that Africa has ever seen. Hutu militants killed Tutsi men, women and children in cold blood in the streets of the country often with nothing more than rusty machetes.
Deogratias is simply a young Hutu man caught up in the brutal proceedings. He loves Bénigne, a young Tutsi woman who befriends him, but soon becomes aware of the mass killings by way of Hutu radio broadcast.
Stassen uses flashbacks to move through Deogratias’ horrific journey from normalcy to his joining of the Hutu army.
The imagery in Deogratias is beautiful and brutal. Stassen’s words alone could not convey the acidic violence and contempt that Deogratias’ “friends” show towards him and the one’s he loves. Deogratias becomes so entrenched in madness after viewing the death of the two that he is driven mad, wandering around the countryside, revisiting faces from his past.
The cover, which portrays Deogratias hunched over in the grass under the vast, starry Rwandan sky, is an image which Stassen uses quite frequently throughout to punctuate the character’s loneliness.
At several key moments, Deogratias’ mental anguish causes him to psychologically transform himself in to a doglike creature, and the ugly visual works perfectly with the pacing of the film to show the character’s feelings.
The graphic language, sometimes sexual in nature, makes Deogratias a poignant and unsettling read. There are no moments of joy or happiness in the novel, and the reader should be forewarned of this. Evil characters, such as the French soldier and Hutu rebels, are immeasurably vulgar in their language and attitude. However, a true sense of reality and consequences comes through in the story. Bad characters are looked down upon by Stassen, and probably by the reader as well - and rightly so.
Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda is a difficult, yet satisfying novel. Stassen takes the reader on a journey through depravity, insanity and extreme violence to a world with only the slightest strand of joy. If good books are supposed to push a reader towards awareness, then consider Deogratias a strong kick in the back.