One dark night in 1997, a young man named Christophe André was kidnapped by two armed men from a house in the Caucasus where he was serving as administrator of a Médecins Sans Frontières team. The kidnappers were apparently Chechen rebels acting without the authority of their organization. They were freebooters with a plan to make money for themselves. Gruff and angry, they were too naive to understand that an international NGO operated by self-sacrificing idealists is no place to look for easy money.
André didn’t know that or anything else about his captors when they bundled him into a car and drove him to their hideout. For three months, they kept him handcuffed and alone, beyond contact with the outside world. The kidnapping was a fundamentally cruel process, a random act of psychological torture.
About two decades later, André’s ordeal captured the imagination of Guy Delisle, a Quebecois artist who lives in France. Delisle has been working in a fascinating corner of the publishing business, adapting the style of graphic novels into a kind of graphic journalism. A few years ago he produced Pyongyang, a memorable view of North Korea. He’s since done books on Jerusalem, Shenzhen and Burma.
Delisle spent many hours interviewing André and produced the 436-page Hostage (Drawn & Quarterly Books), an absorbing, surprising piece of work.
Solitary confinement quickly emerges as one of the book’s powerful themes. Canadian readers will quicken to that issue because it’s a current subject of media discussion and (thanks to the BC Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society) a first-ever constitutional challenge in court. The idea behind the challenge is that indefinite solitary confinement is a kind of torture, an argument that readers of Hostage will appreciate.
André would understand that. He was kept in a darkened room where he had to lie on a mattress because he was handcuffed to a radiator. He tried to keep the days and dates in mind without a calendar or a piece of paper. He did that pretty well, but he kept wondering whether he was getting it right.
Through Delisle’s emotional engagement with André, and through his clever staging of the story, a reader can get deeply involved in material that might easily have seemed remote.
André develops fantasies of overpowering one of the guards. They speak no French or English and André speaks none of their languages. So he has no conversation with any human being for a quarter of a year — a major deprivation, hard to imagine. Studying their surly attitudes (because there’s little else to think about), he dreams of beating one of them to death. He’s not in a jail but in the back room of a house or, at one point, an apartment. Shafts of light peeking through the boarded-up window give him the only indication of night or day.
He exists in a world without words and (it’s chilling to think of it) without events. Almost nothing happens. When one guard wordlessly gives him a cigarette, he realizes this is the most memorable moment of his day. At another point a guard gives him a drink of vodka, a similar event. He gets watery vegetable soup and a piece of bread three times a day. It’s a sensation for him when a piece of meat appears in his gruel.He thinks longingly of the movies and books that are the assumed right of human beings, and the right of going for a walk. He guesses there will be parties among colleagues and family when (if?) he gets out. He knows he’s being kept for ransom but he wonders whether his colleagues are in fact trying to pay off his jailers – or are they even in touch with them? The guards photograph him to prove that he’s still alive and he understands eventually that they want a million dollars in U.S. cash to hand him over. He’s appalled and frightened. Is he worth that? That much would for certain bankrupt the Médecins Sans Frontières.
Like anyone, he fears that he’ll lose his mind and wonders how long that will take. A reader of military history, he decides to stay alert by recalling in detail great battles he’s studied. He’s so desperate, and so fearful, that the reader wants to cheer when he remembers how Napoleon beat the Russians at his greatest victory, Austerlitz. Since his memory has sprung to life, he goes on to tell himself why Robert E. Lee lost the key battle of the Civil War, Gettysburg. As Delisle said about him in an interview, “Imagination saved him.”
Dealing with this material graphically must have been a challenge. The hero is living in a nowhere space without obvious conflict or even minor characters. Delisle must have decided that André’s mind could provide all the drama the story needs. After a while we realize that the suspense has become thrilling. This is a formidable achievement.