Alone in a Room
An artist’s arresting vision of a life in captivity, and of how power shapes our world and our selves
Guy Delisle, who grew up in middle class Quebec City, has come to be known for sharply observed graphic-novel travelogues from very uncomfortable places (Pyongyang, Shenzhen, Rangoon, Jerusalem). A few years ago, when his wife left her job with Doctors Without Borders, the international non-governmental organization that led to so much of his foreign adventuring, Delisle no doubt faced an identity crisis. What to write about? In his latest book he embraces the problem: Hostage, originally published in French last year, swaps the exotic locales of his earlier work for the confines of captivity, telling the true story of a French aid worker who was kidnapped in 1997 and spent months as a prisoner of mysterious jailers in Chechnya.
One senses Delisle posing for himself the ultimate challenge—of jettisoning all his strengths as a graphic novelist and wondering if he will make it, a daring high-wire act. Gone is the celebration of novelty and colour that characterizes his earlier books: of the strange, futuristic and oppressive in Pyongyang, say, or of the grand, decaying and colonial in Rangoon. In its place is the grind of days spent handcuffed to a radiator. Gone too, perhaps more radically, is Delisle’s comic-book alter ego, the delightful, slightly bumbling narrator of the travel memoirs, the guy who would show you around while delivering trenchant commentary (“I swear, when you see the spectacle religion puts on around here, you don’t feel like being a believer,” he told us in 2012’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City. “Thanks, God, for making me an atheist.”).
In Hostage, Delisle acts instead as invisible amanuensis to the hostage, Christophe André, abducted within the book’s first few pages. Everything we know is filtered through this prisoner, who shares no common language with his captors, is unsure at first of their motives, and is entirely deprived of outside news. A quirky military-history buff and an avid reader, André retains a zest for living in the midst of privation and bondage that makes him as sympathetic a character as Delisle would ever need for this austere narrative strategy to work. In how many books about Kafka-esque imprisonment does the captive, deprived of books, daydream of reading, or contemplate which novel he will pick up first upon liberation? André nicknames his main jailer Thénardier, after the scheming innkeeper in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, and the allusion helps join Hostage to a French literary tradition of jailhouse writers and narratives, from The Count of Monte Cristo to Papillon. The Hobbesian realities of the Caucasus in the 1990s, meanwhile, injects into that tradition the alien, desperate aspirations of bandits in a troubled corner of the world, and their indifference to the intentions of a French humanitarian aid worker.
That Hostage works so beautifully is testament to Delisle’s mastery as a storyteller. The overwhelming sensory abundance of culture shock in which he revelled in his earlier books becomes here the life-affirming properties of a clove of garlic, secured by a handcuffed man through heroic exertion and the cunning use of his toes, and in its flavour after months of thin soup. Here is the nitty-gritty of hiding a bit of bread for later, and as the tension mounts putting the book down increasingly becomes a chore. It might have been an easy device for Delisle to delve into André’s memory and mine it for pathos. Yet there are no flashbacks here: instead, Delisle dives into the reality of life alone in a room, and André’s private, imaginative diversions, interrupted now and then by matter-of-fact depictions of menace. “Was I dreaming or was that guy carrying a kitchen knife?” André asks himself after one of his jailers slips into the room to scold him. “Shit! I hope I won’t be here too long.” Delisle’s commitment to monotony begins to drive the narrative to a surprising degree. So does André’s detective work as he deciphers the almost existential dilemma of his custody. “With no way for me to influence what’s happening, my anger has turned into despair,” he says at one point. “I feel humiliated.”
Twenty-five years after Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust narrative Maus became the first (and so far only) graphic novel to win a Pulitzer, practitioners of the form continue to receive short shrift in North America. Although Delisle is respected in Canada, he is a star in France, where he lives in Montpellier, and his sensibility remains more European than Canadian or Québécois. He is a former animator, and his roots are in the experimental comic art of Paris in the 1990s, and while his travelogues are better known, his back catalogue includes more sinister, avant-garde stuff too.
As a child he devoured the Franco-Belgian bande-dessinée classics (Asterix, Tintin, Lucky Luke, Les Schtroumpfs) before moving on to pulpier artists such as Marcel Gotlib, Philippe Druillet and Jean Giraud, who under the nom de plume Moebius published widely influential science fiction. Delisle later became a key figure in la nouvelle bande-dessinée, a “new wave” that did for comics what Nouvelle Vague pioneers such as Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut had done for cinema a generation earlier: applied genre sensibilities and techniques to such incongruous subject matter as autobiography and travel memoir. Delisle’s cohorts include such names as Lewis Trondheim, David B. and Charles Berberian, although perhaps best known in this country is Marjane Satrapi, whose book Persepolis, about her youth in Iran around the time of the Islamic revolution, was made into a critically acclaimed animated feature.
As a visual artist Delisle only occasionally hints at Tintin. Rendered in muted colour, with low-key yet often arresting compositions, his sketchy, impressionistic style eschews flash of any kind. It does not eschew bite, however, and even his more mainstream efforts retain an atmosphere of the subversive. Writing from Rangoon under Burma’s oppressive military junta, Delisle takes the opportunity to note the ubiquity of globalization: he spots it in the grin of the Laughing Cow cheese on sale at the grocer’s. Here and elsewhere he suggests that, although differences remain between the peoples of the world, they more and more exist attached to similarities, not always of the I’m-OK-you’re-OK variety. His dark vision of the city in Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, published in 2000—of capitalism run amok, where the individual is lost in the architecture’s outsized scale—terrifies precisely because it is not entirely unfamiliar, even to those of us a world away from industrial China. (Toronto and Vancouver are not quite there yet, but just wait.)
His travelogues have all been about the pageantry of conflict, set in cities controlled either by old animosities or by new, harsh, always slightly ridiculous authoritarian regimes. In subtle ways those old themes remain in Hostage. If in Shenzhen and in Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea he highlighted the ways power shapes our identities and our interactions with one another, Hostage scrubs away the veneer. Its depiction of power is brutal, oppressive, ultimately unknowable, absurd: a punch in the face, cuffs so tight they make the hands numb. The reader begins to internalize the struggle to find for oneself a comfortable position in bed with one hand attached to a loop driven into the ground, or the joy of sunlight when its warmth is felt on the skin only rarely. And yet Delisle suggests that here too there is room for freedom. André does not allow himself to show his jailer how badly he needs to urinate when he is led to the toilet each day: “I didn’t want him to feel like I needed him in any way.” His protagonist mirrors Delisle’s own comic-book persona’s penchant for gentle self-mockery and mild-mannered insight. When André catches himself wishing one of his jailors good night at the end of the day, he observes: “You’re locked to a radiator and listen to you! ‘Good night’ … Starting right now, I’m done being friendly with any shithead jailers.” It is a celebration of the ordinary and gentle in the face of extreme circumstances and dogma, a democratic sensibility, and here as much as anywhere Delisle distinguishes himself as a humane writer.
His alter ego—the author-as-comic-book-character we know from his travelogues—appears just once in Hostage, below an author’s note preceding the narrative: he is busy setting up a tape recorder in front of André, his main character. “This book recounts his story as he told it to me,” writes Delisle. It is also a book that manages to expand Delisle’s artistic repertoire, turning what was once a brilliant talent for wry observation into something more unsettling and profound.