This true story of a man’s kidnapping in Chechnya confirms Guy Delisle’s position as one of the greatest modern cartoonists
1997, Christophe André, a young Frenchman who was working as an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontières in Ingushetia in the north Caucasus, was woken in the middle of the night by a gang of armed men. At first, he thought they’d come to raid the NGO’s safe: the next day was pay day and it was bulging with cash. But when they bundled him into a car and drove him over the border into Chechnya, he realised things were perhaps more serious than he had at first believed. The victim of a kidnapping, he would spend the next three months alone in a dark room, handcuffed to a radiator.
Three months, one room. This is, to say the least, extremely challenging territory for a cartoonist. Somehow, though, Guy Delisle – the French-Canadian artist who is best known for such award-winning travelogues as Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City – has turned André’s account of his weeks of hell into a gripping visual narrative. The days unfold monotonously, punctuated only by bowls of thin soup and the occasional trip to the bathroom. Of troubled Chechnya and its people we see almost nothing until the book’s final pages, when André makes a daring escape. But in the end, this is of no consequence. In Hostage, it’s the treacherous landscape of the mind that Delisle determinedly makes his own.
At first, André is all optimism. He thinks of his colleagues back in the town of Nazran, and reassures himself that even as he lies on his dirty mattress, they will be setting up a crisis cell. But the days tick by and his beard grows ever longer. Hope now battling despair, he gives in to a strange tiredness – he has nothing to do, and nowhere to go, and yet he is exhausted – and to torturing himself with questions he cannot answer. His emotions are close to the surface, and frequently unexpected. He feels, for instance, ashamed of what he perceives to be his own weakness. Why can he not overpower his guards? Why does he allow them to humiliate him like this? The tiniest achievements leave him giddily triumphant. Moved to a room where garlic is being stored, he manages to grab himself a single, empowering clove. “There’s a tingle on my tongue which gives way to a flavour that spreads through me… Good God! It’s so great, I feel dizzy!”
On the rare occasion when something is happening – a shot sounds, a door is unlocked – Delisle’s blue-grey frames grow smaller and more urgently numerous. Most of the time, however, he limits himself to just three or four per page. Looking at these cells within a cell, every corner of André’s prison depicted from every possible angle, you’re able to absorb the terrible accretion of time in a single glance – at which point you suddenly grasp just how well the comic serves this particular story. All this darkness and claustrophobia shouldn’t be exhilarating. The fact Delisle makes it so is yet another reason why he must be counted as one of the greatest cartoonists of our age.