Guy Delisle's graphic travelogue/memoirs have taken him to the kinds of places that are off limits to even the most seasoned travellers. His wife's work with Médecins Sans Frontières MSF (Doctors Without Borders) has enabled him to get access inside regimes like those in North Korea, Burma and China. His is a fairly unique view, not only because he gets the opportunity to see the sorts of things that the ruling parties would rather you didn't, but because he enters each country with a pair of innocent eyes, keen to document what he sees but unafraid also to give his honest reaction to what he sees there. He is also resolutely normal. Most of the time we watch him simply trying to travel about, to do his work and his frustrations in doing those simple things help to show just how different the cultures can be. His last book, Burma Chronicles, was particularly funny in showing this young father trying to cope not only with a new culture but a new baby too and the all the everyday domestic dangers that entails.
It was almost inevitable that he would one day end up in the Holy City and he is the perfect guide to point up not only the absurdities of a city divided amongst several religions who share common points and places of faith and yet who are in constant conflict with each other, but also the more serious impact of constant military intervention and the brutal impact of decades of fighting. Anyone who has read Joe Sacco's work will know how effective a graphic approach can be in illustrating complicated conflicts and personal testimony. Delisle's own work doesn't hit as hard as Sacco's (in fact there is a hilarious panel where he wonders whether the aggressive response he gets from a group of Israeli soldiers might be because they have mistaken him for Sacco), it is far more whimsical and entertaining, but that doesn't take away from its own ability to enlighten a wide range of readers.
A key part of this is Delisle's naïveté (whether real or feigned). He wants things explained to him and in Jerusalem there is a constant stream of people from different viewpoints willing to make things clear, or at least clearer. He also has the genuine enthusiasm of any person who visits the Holy Land, excited by its history, its antiquity; and the slow discovery of how this almost fable-like past has been sullied by modern conflict, development and division is at the heart of the book's impact.
Delisle also employs simple maps to illustrate the points of division or demarcation. These are useful not only because they make light work of the often fiendishly complicated history of occupation and conflict but also because they illustrate clearly what the real effects of that occupation are for the Palestinian population.
The recently erected security wall is one point of focus. There has always been an element of doublespeak about armies called defence forces, rocket attacks used to defend populations, and walls or checkpoints used to ensure security. The restrictions on movement are clear not just from the Palestinian people Delisle interviews but from his own complicated travels about the country and various territories. The personal testimony from those that live there is crucial however in showing just what everyday life is like for those trying to make a living in the shadow of that gigantic concrete wall, for those seeking a semblance of ordinary living amongst such heightened security, in a country populated and influenced by so many diverse interests.
David B and Joe Sacco. How lucky we are.