Thursday, December 02, 2021

Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna

To have a memoir, someone has to live through an event. That sounds trite, but think about it. If no one survives, there's no one to tell the story. We can never know the stories of the ones who didn't make it.

In Cambodia, in the late '70s, the Khmer Rouge regime, in a horrifically misguided, ideologically-driven push to transform the country entirely to an agrarian self-organized socialist society, killed or caused to die nearly a quarter of the country's population. Even in the context of the 20th century, even in contrast with other genocides of the era, it's horrifying: there was less of an emphasis on purging specific ethnicities, with instead a Procrusteanly purist flavor of communism requiring all of society to be transformed for its own supposed benefit and an assumption that no individual had any specific worth.

Year of the Rabbit is a memoir of the Khmer Rouge years, by Cambodian-born and French-raised cartoonist Tian Veasna. He was born three days after April 17, 1975, the day the capital, Phnom Penh, fell to the communists. His book covers the years until his family managed to get over the border into Thailand, in 1980. Again: it's a memoir of the years when Veasna was zero to about five, starting just before he was born.

This book is mostly the story of Veasna's father Khim, who was a doctor in Phnom Penh - and who fled, with his pregnant wife and a large portion of her family, out of that city almost immediately after it fell. The Khmer Rouge emptied out the city - the national capital, again - immediately after they conquered it, to force the entire population of the country back to "their villages," there to work on farms. The group sets out, first just to follow orders and find a place to regroup and figure out what next. That quickly turns into a plan to get to Battambang, near the Thai border, where they have more family and could, in the worst case they expected, get over the border to become refugees.

That is not the actual worst case.

Veasna's family ended up in rural Cambodia for the next half-decade, and the large family tree at the beginning of the book will be pruned cruelly by the version at the end. Most of Rabbit details what life was like under the Khmer Rouge: self-criticism circles, back-breaking farming, families deliberately shattered, and a relentless focus on what "angkar" (organization, the personification of what the Party wants) demands every day.

Rabbit has a large cast, with complicated relationships to each other: the core centers around Veasna's mother Lina and her six siblings. A reader might not always remember who all of the people are and how they're related to each other, but they're all family, and they're all trying to protect and help each other.

This is a memoir. The other thing "memoir" means is that something is over. Veasna, and his surviving family, did make it over that Thai border eventually, and we see that in this book. (We do not see any of them go to France, and only get quick glimpses in an afterword of their lives later on: this is a memoir of Cambodia, of the Khmer Rouge years, so it ends when they get away from those things.)

Veasna tells this story on pages that feel cramped, with thick black borders separating panels jammed right up against each other, with figures looming in the foreground nearly always. There's a lot of darkness, a lot of black - many night scenes, many storms. His lines are loose but detailed: faces are quick and precise, but stuff is more precise: bicycle spokes, details of building and fields and plants, piles of debris.

This is a horrible story, well told. Veasna tells it cleanly, as if he was an omniscient narrator watching his own family, his own baby self, as they go through all of this torment and strife. We do know he makes it out: that might be enough to make reading Year of the Rabbit bearable.

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