Christophe André, an administrator working in the Caucasus with the humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières, was sleeping one night when a group of men burst into his bedroom, threw a sack over his head and took him into captivity.
He was held in a series of bare apartments, his arm chained above his head to a radiator, unaware of what his kidnappers wanted, until he escaped 111 days later in Chechnya, barefooted, weak and malnourished.
André’s abduction took place 20 years ago, early in the summer of 1997, but kidnapping remains an occupational hazard for employees of non-governmental organizations like MSF.
In some politically volatile countries like Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan, kidnapping is almost a rite of passage.
Quebec-born cartoonist Guy Delisle — who now lives in France where he is considered a celebrity artist — remembers reading a newspaper interview with André after his escape. Delisle was captivated by the story because most people who have returned from a kidnapping don’t want to talk about their experiences.
But Delisle was struck by André’s openness and a quote where he said, “He felt like a football player that scored the last goal and won the match.”
The story also had a deep personal connection for Delisle. His wife Nadège is a former administrator with MSF, and his experiences travelling with their family for her job is the subject of two of his acclaimed graphic novels, Burma Chronicles and Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City.
When Delisle initially met André in person, he was full of questions, and took many notes even before they left the restaurant.
“I didn’t think he wanted to go into detail, but he was talking very freely about the whole thing, and he gave us the whole story from beginning to end,” says Delisle, who immediately suggested to André they turn his memories into a comic.
André had no desire to write a book about the experience but agreed and provided more recordings and documents. Delisle began their interview process, and the tough work of illustrating a story where most of the action happens in someone’s head.
Hostage — which Delisle started drawing in 2003 and is now being released in English by Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly (translated by Helge Dascher) — is a nail-biter of a tale told completely from André’s point of view.
As André’s captivity stretches out over months, Delisle ratchets up the tension with repetitive linework, a gloomy grey palette and tightly boxed-in panels, which just adds to the overwhelming sense of confinement. In developing the story, Delisle even took a few tips from old interviews with the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock.
“I wanted the reader to be stuck there, just like Christophe was, then turn the page and almost suffocate,” says Delisle. “There are so many pages where you want to escape, but it’s not that easy in 450 pages.”
As André’s body gets weaker, the earlier fantasies of returning home for his sister’s wedding and his own homecoming seem impossible.
But then comes his incredible movie-worthy escape, thanks to a door left fortuitously open. Delisle suggests that while readers can imagine themselves in André’s life-or-death predicament, or be confident that they would run or fight, it’s nearly impossible to know one’s reaction under all that physical and emotional stress.
“It’s really hard to imagine what you would do, because you really do have to be in that situation to realize that you can do crazy things and you are much more than you think,” says Delisle.
“Christophe is an administrator, not an adventure guy. It really is the story of an ordinary guy in an extraordinary situation.”