‘The focus is external, political, geographical’ – Jerusalem by Guy Delisle

Guy Delisle’s latest graphic travelogue takes place in the city of Jerusalem and its environs, and as with his three previous travelogues, Burma Chronicles, Pyongyang and Shenzhen, what we have here is a book that simultaneously gives you a flavour of what it is like to live in a city, day to day, and what it is for a comics author to live in a city day by day as he attempts to ply his trade. Delisle’s affable everyman (the flipside of Joe Sacco’s eyeless conscience) does his level best to ensure his children get to school each day as his wife, a doctor for medecins sans frontieres, goes about her business, this time travelling to Gaza and the harder to reach parts of Israel. This sometimes means that he barely gets anything done in a day, as his children have to go to different schools and traffic is often bad on certain roads.

Jerusalem is fascinating in a hundred different ways – from the shadow life of an ex-pat (he and his family occupy living quarters that were previously occupied by someone else, Delisle plays detective trying to work out what the previous occupant was like) to the commingled life of part-time resident (a great deal of his time is spent looking for parks) and interested tourist (as the book proceeds, Delisle becomes quietly fascinated by the high walls that box in the Palestinians). Unlike Burma Chronicles, less time is spent in the company of his wife this time (which comes in part from the fact that Delisle just can’t get the access he was able to get in Burma). The book is also, possibly, more contentious in that, whereas a great many people in the West would agree with what he had to say about Burma (and Pyongyang and Shenzhen), Jerusalem (and Israel and the long history of conflict between the Jews and the Palestinians) divides people along very specific lines (either you think the Jews are entitled to oppress another people having been oppressed themselves once upon a time or you don’t).

Quite possibly taking a leaf from Sacco’s book, Delisle is quiet in his condemnation, worrying about whether or not to shop at a large supermarket in occupied territory (he chooses not to, despite the fact they stock lots of things he wants), and often letting the sights he witnesses speak for themselves (the interminable queues at various points about the city, the speed with which Israeli soldiers are quick to raise arms, the ferocity with which people police holidays). And yet, in the midst of it all, there is time to witness children of all colours and creeds playing together happily at a park in the midst of the city. Division, Delisle seems to imply, is learned.

It’s a terrific book and, like his previous travelogues, well worthy of being re-read. What is curious, when placed alongside something like, say, Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, which is essentially a retread of her first book Fun Home, is how interesting and unique an author Delisle is. Like Bechdel, he is essentially writing the same book again and again – except whereas Bechdel’s self is the focus, for Delisle the focus is external, political, geographical. Delisle brings his sensibilities to bear upon a place – and although we learn, as if via postcard, what is happening with his life and his career (which enjoys more attention in Jerusalem than previously), the book is about the place and the place is what sets it apart from his previous books.

Any Cop?: Delisle is a terrific artist and a great storyteller and Jerusalem is everything you would want from a Delisle book. This is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the state of Israel, because you don’t honestly get more even-handed than Delisle. Highly recommended.

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