Tuesday 29 May 2012

Jerusalem - Guy Delisle

'with(out) borders'

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.

I'm a big fan of Delisle's work. It's accessible, entertaining, informative and touching. In a quirk of book categorisation most graphic works tend to be labelled as graphic 'novels' whether they are fiction or not. It has often been my experience that the most satisfying graphic works have been those, like Delisle's, which are more like memoir or reportage. Jerusalem is just the first of several treats like that to come this year with new works also expected from the likes of David B and Joe Sacco. How lucky we are.


Max Cairnduff 20 June 2012 at 09:53  

I loved his Pyongyang, which I read following your review, and absolutely intend to read his Burma Chronicles (and then this I guess). He is very good at using art and faux-innocence to explore these places.

The graphic novel does seem adept at channelling the feel of a place, something which can of course be done with reportage but not in so condensed a fashion. The ristretto of reportage perhaps?

Max Cairnduff 20 June 2012 at 09:54  

The new captcha images are terrible - really hard to read. It took me six attempts to leave that last comment. They may perhaps have made it a bit too secure from robots.

William Rycroft 20 June 2012 at 10:27  

Yes, the ability to condense makes graphic work perfect for the kind of reportage that seeks to give a clear overview as well as some telling detail. Delisle and Sacco are masters at this, although both have very different techniques, and it's no surprise that the graphic novel is also such a successful approach to complex conflict. I sense that I could have read a substantial text book on the Arab-Israeli conflict and emerged with the same basic understanding of its roots as I have gained from Delisle and particularly Sacco. I look forward to each of their new works...

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP