The Prisoner

Hostage by Guy Delisle. Drawn & Quarterly, 2017. 9781770462793. 436pp.

Sarah: This is the story of when Christophe André was kidnapped and held hostage in the Caucuses when he was working for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). I know from his other books that Guy Delisle’s wife worked for MSF, which is why he was in Burma and wrote the book about living there. So Delisle has links to that group.
Gene: Is she his wife or partner? Maybe the latter?
Sarah: We’ll fact check.
Gene: We probably won’t.
Sarah: Okay.
Gene: This is the story of André being kidnapped and then enduring captivity.
Sarah: They show where he was taken while in “a small Russian republic west of Chechnya.” It was so interesting that the kidnapping…I think I’ve been too affected by efficient TV kidnappings. His kidnappers were bumbling. André knew there was a huge amount of cash in the office safe. His kidnappers didn’t.
Gene: They pretended to be police. They were not after the money, apparently.
Sarah: Or they didn’t know about it. But then later they asked for money for his release. And maybe more than was in the safe? But they could have had both. André had the key to the safe in his pants.
Gene: Yeah but who would think a medical NGO would have a safe full of money?
S: They had it to pay everyone’s salaries in cash. And if that was the norm there, maybe people would know that?
G: The thing I liked was that it opens with him talking to Delisle, so you know he survived. So after they picked him up, he was imagining the worst things happening. They made him get out of a car in the middle of nowhere and he imagined being shot in the back of the head. But there was not a sense of terror because we knew that didn’t happen.
S: And the book is hugely long. So you know there’s more to the story. But yeah, they took him to someone’s apartment and handcuffed him to a radiator. All there was in the room was a thin mattress and a radiator. And the only time he was released from his handcuffs was when he needed to eat or go to the bathroom.
G: The story is so long and so repetitive that it gives a sense of what it was like for him to be stuck there. Turning the page sometimes, and between the panels, there’s an amazing sense of time. It doesn’t feel like Delisle digitally copied panels, it feels like he drew each panel, even though many of them are so similar in the captivity sequences, over and over and over again. So I felt the effort.
I think it’s important to say when pitching this book, you have to set aside an hour or an hour and a half to read it all at once to get a sense of the story’s time.
S: Yeah.
G: I think it wouldn’t have worked as a prose book because you would have put it down and left it and then come back to it over and over again, as one does. But I didn’t. I read straight through.
S: Me, too.
G: Didn’t it feel compulsive? Like you had to?
S: Yes! Each day he hoped it would be the day he got released. And he honestly had this hope all the time. And when he started to lose heart, when he felt like everyone had forgotten about him, it brought me back to the Tehran hostages. There were people in the US who were saying, we need them to know they haven’t been forgotten. And I realized that was a real thing.
G: I love the light and darkness in panels. I love everything about the design. Andre’s internal dialogue just kind of floats on the panels, and the spoken dialogue, the word balloons, they don’t have borders. It all deadens the color palette, so that nothing is distinct or set apart. And as the nights get darker and the room does, there are slightly darker shades of blue and the grey. Delisle really plays with them. It looks so simple but it’s masterful.
S: There are numbers at the beginning of the sections that tell how long he’s been held, but he couldn’t always remember what day it was, though it was really important to him to hang on to that.
G: There were really tense moment where — I don’t remember how long he was held captive — weird things happened that broke up his captivity. Someone’s wife came in to sweep up his room.
S: He saw her one other time, too.
G: Another time the door was left open, and there was a kid in the hallway looking at him.
S: That was so hard for me to read. It wasn’t just that André was humiliated, chained to a radiator like a dog while this little kid just stared at him, but to me that this little kid was in a situation where it wasn’t weird that there was a hostage in the house. He didn’t go oh my god I need to call the police! It’s like, oh yeah, okay.
G: That’s not a good neighborhood to live in.
S: No!
G: For me the most harrowing moment was when he figured out the door was unlocked, and then tried to decide what to do. That was absolutely scary. He’d been trying to find a way to escape but suddenly, after becoming so real, his terror at the thought of being caught trying to escape and what his captors might do to him after that —
S: I felt so much of this. And every day he was drinking thin vegetable soup and tea, and that’s all they give him, and you could see his pants getting looser and looser. It wasn’t until much later that he realized they were falling down and he’d lost weight. But Delisle shows it.
This book terrified me. It was really well done.
G: It’s so unlike anything by Delisle that I’ve read. I fell in love with his books about living in foreign places — Pyongyang, Shenzhen, Jerusalem, and Burma. Did you ever see the strange little books he did for D&Q, the first of his that were published in English? Albert and the Others, Aline and the Others — so wacky, so strange.
S: I liked the ones about bad parenting!
G: Those are funny. But he did these wordless little books in French about a little boy named Louis that are amazing, too. (Louis Au Ski, Louis À La Plage) They’re in that beautifully big French graphic album format. It’s good to see Delisle can escape being pigeonholed as an author. He’s much more than the guy who wrote about living in foreign countries
S: I really want to give this book to adult book clubs.
G: Right. It belongs right up there with Safe Area Gorazde and The Photographer. And it reminds me a little of Alan’s War by Guibert, about an American soldier in World War II whose service was pretty boring.

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