Vann Nath: Painting the Khmer Rouge is a book you cannot rate. There are many pieces that come together to make my opinion and my feelings about it. Matteo Mastragostino made a biographical graphic novel about one man and the torture he faced that was a gut punch, smack upside the head and a heart wrenching horrific, wonderful, piece of art.
My rating of a four comes from a five for historical awareness. A five for tearing at heart strings. A one for the ugliness of the subject (every time I hear of these kinds of horrors, I wonder how we can call ourselves human). A one for the ugliness. The art is blurry, not fully fleshed out and it’s a 4 for representation, but 3.5 for my personal “liking.” And a 4 for the use of red. (If my math is right 3.5 total round up to 4).
I should have started it with that there are several trigger warnings. There is extreme violence, death of children, torture, and langue to start with. And at the end, there are actual images of how the children that were taken from the families of dissidents were murdered, torn from their mothers and the deaths of the men that did not survive.
Van Nath was a man living in Cambodia with his wife and son at the start of the Khmer Rouge reign. Falsely accused as a traitor and dissident to the government, he is forced into a prison where he is starved, sleep deprived, tortured, made to listen to the tortures of others. Forced to paint for the camps leader (who would call him “Brother” which was the way people were expected to address each other, but had little meaning, as you would see), Nath would become one of a handful that survived his prison. Based on his own experiences, the ones he saw himself, the ones he was told, and the ones he could imagine, after the reign of terror was over, he created works showing the imagery of it. Between the artwork of Paolo Castaldi interpreting the surrounds, and recreating Nath’s work, and later the actual work of Nath, you see every ugly detail.
In graphic detail, the end tells you what we did not see through the eyes of Nath as he tells his story, and we follow through to as recently as 2012 when finally, some of the men involved would be punished for crimes. The afterwards is equally powerful as we learn the fates of many of the people involved.