Sep 22, 2009

Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by J.P. Stassen

Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by J.P. Stassen

The story told in Deogratias is set in Rwanda in 1994 and 1995. Deogratias is a boy who belongs to the Hutu ethnic group. He goes to school with two girls who belong to the Tutsi group, and ends up dating one of them. This is 1994 – the year when around a million Tutsi people were murdered with machetes (the women often being raped before they were killed) in an organized genocide.

Deogratias doesn’t depict the genocide itself – it takes place before and after. Before is when Deogratias, Apollinaria and Benina lived and talked and laughed and went to school together. And after, we see a broken, crazed Deogratias haunted by the image of dogs eating the intestines of bodies – haunted by the unspeakable violence he witnessed and by his role in it. The killings are never actually portrayed graphically, and the violence takes place off the pages. But the implication is enough.

I should start by warning you that I cried for something like half an hour after I finished this book, and that I’ve been thinking about it often ever since. I should also apologize to Jason and hope he won’t take it personally if my post sounds like a response to his – it’s just that I found it when looking for reviews to link to, and it got me thinking about what it is that a book like Deogratias does, and what it aims to do.

The story told here is fragmented: it’s not neat, it doesn’t offer hope, and it doesn’t make the kind of narrative sense we’ve come to expect from stories. But I think that’s intentional. How do you even begin to make sense of something like this? A genocide that happened not even two decades ago, whose effects can still be felt today – something so big, and yet something so much of the world barely even knows about?


In the introduction, the translator Alexis Siegel says: “…it is only through deep, heartfelt understanding that we can hope to overcome—within ourselves, first—the false divisions that have brought such horror into the world. And find reasons to hope.” This is really the reason why I read books like Deogratias: because without a personal connection, it’s only through stories, fragmented or not, that I develop this kind of empathy and understanding. To put it simply, stories make me care. And it’s not even that the kind of images we're shown on TV desensitize me – comics include images too, after all. It’s just that stories force me to step into the shoes of another human being in a way that news reports don't. They’re as close as I’ll ever get to being personally involved.

Having said this, I’m the last person you'd catch telling others that they have some sort of moral obligation to read a book that will upset them. And yes, Deogratias is upsetting and relentlessly dark and depressing. It shows humans at their very worst, and no, there are no acts of kindness to counterbalance that. So, you know. I’m sure you all know your limits as readers enough to be able to tell whether or not this would be too much for you. Personally, I’m glad I read it.


To end on a lighter note: Deogratias reinforces my decision to read First Second Books’ entire catalogue. I’ve yet to read a book of theirs that wasn’t amazing.

Reviewed at:
A Chair, A Fireplace & A Tea Cozy
The Zen Leaf
Book Addiction

(Did I miss yours?)

And you can see a list of books on the Rwanda Genocide at Maw Books.


  1. A powerful book to read. I don't know if I could. I cried when I watched a documentary concerning the genocide. It haunted me for months after.

  2. This sounds incredibly powerful and moving. I've added it to my wishlist and sorry my library doesn't have a copy (although not surprised in the least). I have put of watching Hotel Rwanda for years.

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention and for the link to the list at Maw Books.

  3. I'm surprised you included my "abandoned" review. I didn't say much in there. It was just too graphic for me to read.

  4. I'd never heard of this one until your review. On the one hand, I want very much to read it. On the other, I'm not sure I ever will. It's been over 2 years since I read We Wish to Inform You... and that book still haunts me. Really, truly haunts me. Don't get me wrong...I am so very glad I read it. Well, I'm sure you know exactly what I mean.

  5. It wasn't that the book was bleak and hopeless that bothered me. I mean, I know, the human spirit doesn't always triumph. I didn't dislike this book because I think it should have been happier.
    I don't mean this as a complaint against the author, but... when you write about something this terrible, it's really easy to fall into a sort of strange arrogance. You kind of know that you're writing the 'right' side of the argument (I mean 'genocide is bad' is a pretty basic moral point), so it's easy to assume that what you write glows with the reflected power of your subject matter. As a work of fiction, I guess, this book bothered me, because I felt like, if I didn't know it was about an actual historical period, it would feel indulgent and pompous to me - not the voices of the CHARACTERs, mind you, just the voice of the book (I guess that makes less sense in a graphic novel, where there isn't a narrator, neccesarily, the way there is one way or the other in a novel. I don't know, I'm not smart enough about graphic novels to better elucidate that). The only reason it felt powerful to me is because, at the end, you think 'wow, this stuff really happened.' So, again. If it were nonfiction, journalism? Yes, it would be powerful. As a work of fiction? It kind of felt like a screen for the author to show off. I imagine this is probably just me and my hangups, so if the author should happen to come across this, I don't mean it personally... (EDITED - reposted for some really awful typing errors :P)

  6. Wow. This one sounds like a book that I would like to check out. And I'm off to look at First Second Books webpage too. I'm curious.

  7. This looks powerful and amazing. Definitely adding it to the wishlist :)

    Thanks for the great review.

  8. Vivienne: This is going to haunt me too :(

    Claire: I've had the Hotel Rwanda DVD for something like two years, and I haven't found the courage to watch it either :/

    Amanda: I think that telling people you abandoned a book and explaining why is still useful info - and you explained your reasons well!

    Debi: I really understand. I've been meaning to read that book ever since your reviewed it, but I keep putting it off.

    Jason: I understand what you're saying, but I don't agree :P To me the tone didn't seem arrogant or pompous or show-off-y in the least, and it worked well as a piece of storytelling, albeit a fragmented one. And I don't know, I found it more ambiguous than that. I don't think he was just pointing fingers, even though like you said genocide is something we all condemn. But for example, Diogratias - in the end we find out exactly the role he played in the killings, but I don't think he was portrayed as a monster. His actions are not redeemed in any way either, but...the story didn't seem righteous or black and white to me. Anyway, I'm sure the author won't hold your opinion against you if he does come across your review!

    Natasha: They have published some of my all-time favourite indie comics!

    Bella: I thought it was incredibly powerful.

  9. This looks so good, and I love the graphics. I love that "The story told here is fragmented: it’s not neat, it doesn’t offer hope, and it doesn’t make the kind of narrative sense we’ve come to expect from stories." Because genocide shouldn't do any of those things.

    I disagree with Jason. I think fiction is a way to infuse historical events with emotional impact, and therefore is a valid epistemological approach. (Or, as you said, stories make you care!)

  10. Wow, if it affected you that much, I'm adding it to my ever-growing to-read list.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  11. Just ordered this from amazon, first graphic novel I've ever paid for! Great review

  12. Hotel Rwanda is a tough film to watch, but worth it, I think.

    Looks like an interesting read, I'll have to add it to the list.

  13. One of the stories in Say You're One of Them is about the genocides in Rwanda and it made me cry too. A good friend of my son's is from Rwanda - luckily his family escaped intact - and I thought about Honore the whole time I was reading the story.

  14. Until you showed the pictures, I had no idea this was a graphic (in several senses) novel. Disturbing, but important, on the order of Maus? (which I have not read and know I should)

    Hotel Rwanda is a wonderful movie. Disturbing, gut-wrenching, powerful. Don Cheadle's performance is excellent. And oh, the children!

  15. I don't think this is a book for me. It sounds a bit too haunting, and I don't know if that is me being ignorant and just afraid to see what happened, or .... just not interested.

    I'm intrigued by the story, but I don't think I could handle the graphic novel format!! Violence in movies bothers me...

    But the part where you say you cried for 30 minutes: I can understand that. I do that with amazing, powerful books too.

  16. Oh, Nymeth, what a beautiful review. I knew just from the description that this one is too dark for me, but it is so impressive that so much is conveyed without any actual depiction of the violence. It sounds like it was a really enriching read. Sometimes I wish I could read more intense books, but I find I just can't. This one would be on my list if I could, though.

  17. Wow! This looks like a powerful read, and something that could be made even more so by the graphic novel format.

    (and I second the first second statement, fantastic publisher!)

  18. I have read only a few books about Rwanda -- enough to know the horrors and some of what happened. I so love the artwork in this book I might have to make myself work through it. The graphic format can be powerful and engaging.

  19. You always read the most unique books. I need to look this one up.
    It sounds intense.

  20. This sounds like an intense and powerful book. I am not sure if I could handle so much bleakness, but your review does intrigue me. I think I might take a chance and try to grab a copy of the book. You've made it sound very compelling.

  21. This sounds like a powerful read, Nymeth! Like the others, I'm not sure if I could handle the bleakness, but I'd love to give it a try! Thanks so much for the wonderful review!

  22. Holy Cannoli :(
    It sounds amazing.

  23. I was wondering if you had read this one. It is amazing and heart-rending and your review of it is wonderful.

    Have you read Ron Currie Jr's book "God is Dead?"

  24. Wow, a graphic book on genocide.

    Before I read your review, I didn't know that an organized massacre happened in Rwanda in 1994! It's something new to know about.

    I would love to read this book - another title to add to my reading list.

  25. Is it a coincidence that you and Rebecca Reads just read a book about Rwanda/genocide? (Rebecca's review then led me to Zen Leaf's review, which also mentions this book) I admit I'm almost completely blind about the genocide. The two books that you three mentioned sound great. I'll look for them.

    You're right about First Second Books. Their catalogue looks amazing. There are a few that I've seen before that I would really like to read. I just realized they're all from the same publisher.

  26. In the last few years, I've read 2 books on the genocide in Rwanda. One was a non-fiction book and the other was called A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali. Both were so incredibly sad and heartbreaking. Although this sounds like an incredible book, it's probably one I won't pick up anytime soon.

    Thank you though for a wonderful review!

  27. Jill: That's what I ask of historical fiction too (or in this case, of fiction about recent history). I think it's possible to write a story that makes narrative sense out of a senseless tragedy, but it probably takes more distance than just a couple of decades. We have books like The Book Thief about the Holocaust that make sense as stories and still show how senseless it all was. But for something like this, it just might be too soon.

    Anna: It really made me sad.

    Fence: I'll watch it some day for sure. This book was the same: tough but worth it.

    Kathy: I'm so glad your son's friend's family was okay! I can imagine how knowing someone who lived through that would make stories about it even more affecting.

    ds: This isn't quite up there with Maus, but then again, Maus is much longer and that gives it room to be more layered. And yes, do read it! I think it's a masterpiece.

    Rebecca: I completely understand both finding it too haunting and not appealing. The illustrations weren't actually as graphic as I feared, thankfully.

    Belle: Thank you for the kind words! And I completely understand - we all have our limits!

    Bart: Aren't their books amazing? I want them all!

    Beth: I absolutely loved the art! Stassen really made the most of the medium.

    Naida: It definitely was :(

    Zibilee: It's compelling, but I won't lie about it: it will make you feel very, very sad.

    Melody: I'm glad I read it, but I really understand preferring not to!

    She: Holy cannoli indeed :(

    Gavin: I haven't, but I'll look it up!

    Josette: That's another reason why I'm grateful for books like this. I vaguely remembered hearing news about it, but I was so young at the time. Sadly it's easy for the world to forget that things like this have happened :(

    Mee: It is a coincidence! I haven't read Rebecca's review yet, but I will soon.

    Stephanie: I think I'll need a break because I read another one too. Before I read any other sad books, really!

  28. Nymeth - thanks for letting us know about this one. I wouldn't have heard of it otherwise, and now I really feel like I should read it. I also had no idea it was a graphic novel until I saw the illustrations! It looks sad, of course, but I "enjoy" reading these types of books because I think it's important to recognize that these things happen - and I'm with you about stories bringing these atrocities home much better than news reports ever do.

  29. I watched Hotel Rwanda sometime back, and I was really affected by the movie.
    I agree with you; a personal account of the horrors of a genocide is more powerful than watching it on TV. Words have the ability to haunt you for more time, as they express a lot more.

  30. I read Machete Season this summer, a non-fiction account of the Rwanda genocide,in which the actual killers tell their stories. I could not believe that this genocide happened only 15 years ago, and that nothing was done to stop it sooner.

  31. How interesting that it takes place before and after the genocide, but doesn't depict the genocide itself.

  32. I'd be really interested in trying this one, Nymeth. It sounds like a powerful and worthwhile read. I do think books like this are important.

    Slightly off topic - Sometimes I find myself responding to someone else's review as I write my own too.

  33. I know what you mean when you say it's the personal stories that really bring the news to life. You should definitely watch Hotel Rwanda sometime. Yes, it's so incredibly sad and heart-wrenching, but a moving performance and really worth watching.

  34. I actually just finished this last night, and while I can't really describe how I feel about it yet (it's so intense and just.. so much.), you wrote a great review of the experience of reading it. I thought it was interesting that most of the violence took place off the pages and we saw a lot of bright colored flashbacks, but when the gruesome elements were there (like the dogs eating the bodies), goodness were they there.

    Thank you so much for mentioning the publisher, First Second Books! I just looked at their catalog and realized I've read a couple already, and I loved them so much. I'm really excited to read some of their other titles! You should read The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert. It's so incredible and different than any other graphic novel I've ever read. I will warn it's not an easy read though.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.