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Vann Nath: Painting the Khmer Rouge – Review

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“Vann Nath: Painting the Khmer Rouge” is a biographical graphic novel about Cambodian painter Vann Nath, one of the only seven adults who made it out alive from the notorious security prison 21, where 20,000 Cambodians are estimated to have been tortured to death under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Like a lot of foreigners, I wasn’t aware of the Cambodian genocide that occurred during the 1970s, not until I visited the country a few years ago and was reading up about its history. So to be able to read a survivor’s tale in graphic novel format interested me immediately.

Created by Matteo Mastragostino and Paolo Vincezo Castaldi, the panels are drawn in mostly sepia tones, and Castaldi’s art has a sketch-book-journal style touch to it, which gives the pages a hauntingly nostalgic tone. For an international audience that’s unfamiliar with the Khmer Rouge regime, this graphic novel is a great place to begin, even though it’s largely limited to just Nath’s experience. So readers get only Nath’s view of the regime, without much political context as to what exactly was unraveling in the nation.

It takes a little while for the story to get visceral, and when it does, some parts do hit you right in the gut. The brutality, paranoia and sheer sadism of the personnel in-charge of prison camps are akin to the Nazis who exterminated Jews. Miraculously, it was art that saved Vann Nath from becoming just another unrecognizable casualty in some unmarked mass grave, and the book chooses to present that tale. How the ghosts of his experiences followed, and how he chose to speak up through his paintings is spine-chilling and profoundly tragic… and yet, he was the lucky one… the one who got out alive.

If you are a graphic novel fan and a history nerd too, definitely check this graphic novel out. It’s a 4/5 from me.

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