Most of Guy Delisle’s longer graphic novels to date, like “Pyongyang” and “Burma Chronicles,” have been memoirs of his travels. HOSTAGE (Drawn & Quarterly, $29.95) is neither about the Canadian cartoonist’s own experiences nor grounded in his canny observations of place: It’s the story of Christophe André, who spent almost four months in 1997 as a hostage. Kidnapped from a Doctors Without Borders office in Nazran, Ingushetia, a Russian republic near Chechnya, where he was an administrator, he was taken to Grozny and handcuffed to a radiator next to a mattress in a darkened room. That was all André knew. He didn’t speak his captors’ language, got almost no information of any kind from them, and had no way of knowing when or how he might be freed.
In some ways, this story, translated by Helge Dascher, is a bizarre choice to present as comics: André spends 300 straight pages as a captive, with very little change of scenery and almost no other identifiable characters in sight. (Delisle’s thin pen lines are submerged in a bare handful of flat tones of gray and gray-green.) But the location captured here is less André’s grim little room than his mind, as he tries to ward off existential despair — a battle that lets Delisle transmute tedium into compelling suspense. We see the captive narrator struggling to keep track of the passing days, and to keep his mind sharp by playing memory games about the Napoleonic Wars. He makes tiny jokes, like naming the man who brings him his soup Thénardier, after the innkeeper from “Les Misérables.” A heroic effort on Day 80 yields him a clove of garlic. Delisle presents André’s eventual escape less as a daring exploit than as a panicked, fumbling victory over his interior monologue — the psychological prison that months of darkness, immobility and uncertainty had imposed on him.