Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I hadn't encountered Delisle before, a deficiency I intend to address immediately. What a delightful talent! He's been at this for some time and here, in his -- what? sixth book, in English translation? -- he has produced one of the most polished little comedies I've encountered for a long time. It's a very clever performance, and well worth examining in more detail than many another graphic of equal length and less seriousness.
Start with his self-portrait. Delisle is, or was, an animator as well as a cartoonist. As such he has what I would assume is the traditional animator's sensitivity to gesture, to posture, to character in the minimum number of necessary drawings. (This isn't as obvious as one might think in contemporary comics. How many cartoonists now, perhaps raised under the dead hand of video games and motion-capture, either can not appreciate a properly cocked eyebrow in one dash or, say, skepticism in just the tilt away from a drawn conversation? How many young artists, grown up on the racial exaggerations of Manga, make every emotion grotesque; obvious, ugly, even vulgar, as if still addressing children or semi-literate new readers? Subtlety, and wit, sometimes would seem to be lost somewhere between the uncanny valley and the Saturday morning cartoons.) As someone who has found his narrative form in the travelogue, Delisle has had the insight to assume an almost perfect deadpan on the page; his face is all but featureless, much of the time, but for that carefully employed Gallic brow. In fact, his head is usually just so much geometry and punctuation. Like Tin Tin, he's often just a shape with a recognizable hairdo. The landscape, real and human, which is very much the point in this kind of book, is handsomely drawn; on site, in the market, at The Wall (the new one,) as seen, and now and then in a helpful map. The cartoonist's simple self moves through this incredibly complex, often confusing and utterly irrational country like some silent comedian with a stroller: Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot in the Holy Land. He tilts in to see some historical curiosity, tilts back from something unpleasant, spins away, single-brow-knit, from some ridiculous eighteen-year-old soldier's insistence that he move along.
There's a year's tour here. A year's worth of small-ish discomforts and discombobulations. Nothing truly horrible happens here, or if it does, it happens out of frame or just off-stage (like the housekeeper's house being scheduled for demolition -- after Delisle's wife's tour with Médecins Sans Frontières ends, and they and their two kids are safe away.)
That's what makes this a comedy, and what keeps it, even at it's most serious and disquieting moments -- and there are more than a few moments genuine discomfort here -- from the portentousness and self-importance that has marred more than a few recent efforts to address this region's many issues, political and religious, in comics. Clearly, it's hard enough to deal with all the tangled and terrible complexities of a place like Jerusalem in even the most considered, diplomatic language. Few things are less suited to such a task than gag-panels and speech-balloons. By keeping the scale of his narrative to just a rather hapless gent in the middle-distance, just taking the kids to the zoo and maybe sketching a ruin here and there, Delisle avoids many of the traps planted all over such a difficult place.
If there are complaints about the cartoonist's occasional cultural insensitivity ("Jewish Easter" for Passover seems particularly egregious,) these have been if not answered then largely excused, quite cleverly, by this Québécois (I hope I've got that right,) making himself, if anything less worldly, shall we say, than even his least traveled reader.
Meanwhile, this is a very rich and quite fascinating stay in a strange place, and well worth a second visit. I've read through the book twice now myself, just for the pleasure of the trip.
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