Guy Delisle is a distinctive graphic novelist whose oeuvre seems to straddle two worlds: on the one hand, from Aline/Albert and the Others through to his three volumes of advice for parents (A User’s Guide to Neglectful Parenting, Even More Bad Parenting Advice and The Owner’s Manual to Terrible Parenting, respectively), Delisle has demonstrated a deft cartoonish touch for light comedy and gentle self-deprecation; on the other, via his travelogues – Pyongyang, Shenzhen, Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem – we can see that his comedy is easily matched by an eye for curiosities, a courageous political sensibility and a keen intelligence. His travelogues however were a by product of his wife’s job with Médecins Sans Frontières – and in the wake of her not having that job any more (or at least in the wake of Delisle’s family seemingly not moving around as much as they once did), it’s tremendously pleasing to see, in his latest book, Hostage, that his muse has not deserted him.
Hostage is ostensibly a true story (we live in an age of true stories and people spend ages splitting hairs about truth and what is true and what is fiction and what bridges the gap; we won’t waste another second of time on it) about a young man, Christophe, working for an NGO, woken in the night and abducted by Chechyen rebels (we presume) and held, in a small number of rooms, for almost four months. Now, were this a book by, say, Joe Sacco, we would read with an expectation of asides in which the reason for Christophe’s abduction would be presented in a context of what the Chechyens were fighting about, what they hoped to achieve from their hostage-taking, who they were up against – what it all meant, basically. Delisle does not do that. He is much more interested in what a period of enforced captivity – a period of time potentially without end – in which the worst could happen but also in which a person is expected to kill quite literally hours of time without a phone, reading materials, TV or distraction of any kind. This is Delisle aspiring to Beckett – and if you’re going to aspire aim high, we say.
So in actuality, much of Hostage centres on the way that Christophe passes the hours, the passage of light across a wall, the relentless self questioning in regard to time (both in terms of the time of day – he marks the passing of the day by the arrival of meals – but also in terms of the length of his captivity, the knowledge acting as a kind of power, as if he retains a power over his captors by tracing the time he has been held) and his own powerlessness (there is a great scene where he is allowed to eat with one of his captors and a gun is balanced against a wall and he debates whether or not to try and make a break for it). The banal undercuts the exhilarating, in that not much happens (which is the point), but also in terms of his captors who are themselves just ordinary people locked in something that seems to the majority of readers, we imagine, as something grossly inhumane. But there is heroism too – both in the form of the ways in which Christophe chooses to fill his time (he’s a military buff and he plays games to remember great battles and great historical military figures) and also in the way in which the book resolves itself (Christophe is brave and so are the people who eventually help him).
Delisle has involved repetition before (we were reminded of the ways in which he has pushed prams about various cities he has resided in) but never as well as this. You get the sense he is pushing himself, that the attractions of the story he is telling are second to the ways in which he is trying to do different things – and Hostage does feel different from his other books (not least because there is no Delisle figure here and less comedy than in his other books, although there is dry humour in the desperation of the situation). It’s the kind of book you can imagine crossing over, being read by people unfamiliar with Delisle’s other work and (for whatever this is worth) the kind of graphic novel you could imagine being turned into a film. A simple afterword to the book reveals how long ago the action of the book takes place (it isn’t a spoiler to know it happened a couple of decades ago), but in many ways it’s a timeless story, this kind of thing happens all of the time, but it’s taken a Delisle to bring the experience to life.
Any Cop?: Likely to surprise Delisle’s readers, Hostage is both inspiring and troubling, testing the reader’s patience even as it works hard to do things a little differently. We commend Delisle and recommend the book.