Wednesday 29 January 2020

Year of the Rabbit

Maybe you have only the vaguest awareness of the events in Cambodia from 1975 when an uprising by the collective known as the Khmer Rouge seized power from the Government, if only for the name of its leader Pol Pot, a name that became infamous among ruthless dictators in history. Essentially, the regime set about evacuating all major cities and instigated a brutal version of Communism that resulted in the deaths of some two million of its own people, making it one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century.

Although Year of the Rabbit (Drawn & Quarterly) keeps the reader aware of the political context, the book is more concerned with the civilians-eye view of events, and the general populace were told very little about what was happening to them. Author and illustrator Tian Veasna was born three days after the Khmer Rogue took control. The book tells his father’s story as he desperately tries to look after his extended family while they are stripped of possessions and shipped out to work in rural villages which were nothing more than labour camps. He learns to lie about his previous life (the educated were ‘removed’ and never seen again) and walk a narrow tightrope of not offending the guards or infringing the strict laws of behaviour where even the most minor misdemeanour was punished with death. Children were separated from parents and taught to spy on them and people were kept on the verge of starvation, working on the land to grow food that they weren’t allowed to eat.
With delicate, loose line-work, Veasna captures a feeling of immediacy, as if the sketches are being drawn at the time, like a diary. The style also reflects the constant state of uncertainty the characters are living with - the book is filled with frightened eyes and sweaty, nervous expressions. There is little attempt to heighten tension with dramatic devices but there is no need to do so as it would only add melodrama to such a naturalistic style of storytelling. 

Year of the Rabbit is a perfect example of how the graphic novel can be an important way of telling such a horrific true story; an easily digestible format, which still manages to lose none of the power to appal or act as a testament to human resilience. 

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