Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Vann Nath: Painting the Khmer Rouge’

“You’ll work harder with a gun in your back for a bowl of rice a day”

Humanoids does these fancier graphic novels every so often, which is nice of them, and this one is by Matteo Mastragostino (who wrote it), Paolo Castaldi (who drew it), and Mark Bence (who translated it). Let’s have a look at it!

Vann Nath is a historical fiction book, based on the experience of its protagonist during the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79, which was one of the more brutal dictatorships of the twentieth century (which is, obviously, saying a lot). It’s one of those books that’s more “good for you” than simply an excellent comic, although it’s pretty good. As I often note when I read books like this, years ago I called Persepolis 2 the “asparagus of comic books,” because it’s more good that it exists than is a great story, which a lot of these kinds of book are, and while I still get them because I’m fascinated by how people live through awful, awful regimes (maybe I’m taking notes for the inevitable?), it’s rare that these kind of books are truly great. It’s frustrating. Mastragostino tells this story in a bit of a disjointed way, which is fine. After the beginning, which takes place in April 1975 and sees the Khmer Rouge kicking everyone out of Phnom Penh (like a lot of idiotic ideologically strident groups, the Khmer Rouge had an inherent distrust of city-dwellers, what with their cool jazz and their tolerant attitudes), we switch to 1979, after the regime has fallen, and Vann is reminiscing about his time spent under their supervision. We flip back and forth between the time periods, which is a pretty effective device – we know Vann survives, so even when his life goes to hell, we don’t worry about him dying, so we can concentrate more on what’s going on and how the Communists tries to break people.

When Vann is accused of “immoral conduct” (we never learn more about the charge than that), he’s taken to a prison and held there for years. The Khmer Rouge discover that he can paint, so they make him paint a likeness of Pol Pot, and his ability keeps him alive, as they want him to paint propaganda for them. When he’s released after the fall of the Communists, he paints murals depicting their abuses (which are reprinted in the back of this book). When he first arrives at the prison and is trying to please his captors and ignore the people who go missing around him, the book remains tense. Even though we know he survives, it’s still a gripping read because Mastragostino manages to tap into the fear of living within a hair’s-breadth of death – no one can become comfortable because they never know if they will be next. Unfortunately, the book can’t sustain that, and it loses some of the urgency of the middle pages. We don’t really see much of what the Khmer Rouge do to Cambodia, mainly because it’s focused on Vann, which is fine but is still a bit unfortunate. We don’t have any idea how the regime ends, as one day, he’s just free. Again, because the book is so focused on our main character, that’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s still a bit frustrating. Then the book shifts to how Cambodia dealt with the Khmer Rouge in the subsequent decades, and the book loses its focus quite a bit. Thanks to his drawings, Vann is called as a witness at the trial of the prison’s director, who was convicted of crimes against humanity in 2010. It’s an uplifting story to a degree (frankly, the United States could do a lot better about reckoning with its own crimes against humanity), but it lacks a narrative focus, especially as we move away from Vann as much, so we don’t see how he made his decisions about chronicling the regime’s abuses through art and if it cost him more even simply to revisit it in his mind. As the book becomes more about getting justice for the victims, it becomes a less interesting story. As I noted, it’s important to tell it, but it becomes more of a dry history book and less of a gripping story about people surviving brutality. I’m not sure what Mastragostino could have done, but it’s frustrating reading.

Castaldi does a pretty good job with the art, using delicate brush strokes to create a kind of fantasy world, as if the people living in the book can’t believe reality has turned out like this. This also makes the times when he uses stronger and harsher brush work have more of an impact, as the violence committed against the people feels more brutal because their “regular” state feels a bit more ethereal. He doesn’t use a lot of color, preferring grays and dirty browns, but when he does sparingly use red, it pops a bit, which works well in the context of the comic. He does a nice job making the Communists regular people, so they don’t look like monsters, which helps when they do act monstrously, as then Cataldi shifts their faces just slightly, giving them a more evil look, but mostly it helps when they’re older and either on trial or seeking forgiveness for their actions, as then Cataldi is able to portray them as rather sad old men – weak and a bit pathetic, as they struggle and fail to come to terms with their murderous pasts. Cataldi does a good job making us understand that they’re not monsters, which makes their evil even more chilling. It’s a stark book, and my disappointment in the art stems only from my disappointment in the story – Mastragostino gives Cataldi very few opportunities to show us what Vann Nath was painting, either as a prisoner or as a seeker for justice. It’s a bit annoying.

The Khmer Rouge regime was horrific, as a huge part of the population of Cambodia was killed during the late 1970s, and not enough people know about it. This is a pretty good comic about that time, and as long as the focus is on Vann Nath, it’s effective even if it’s a bit limited in its scope. When it does want to expand, it loses some of its effectiveness. Still, it’s an interesting look at life in a dictatorship, and those kinds of stories are always necessary if we don’t want to find ourselves living in a similar situation. It’s a cautionary tale, people!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

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