I’m convinced that graphic novels are the perfect form for historical accounts and memoirs. Like film it’s partly a visual medium, but it’s free from the tropes, narrative boundaries, and language of film. It’s also firmly in the realm of literature, but free from the usual trappings of that medium as well. It has all of the strengths of both, and few of their weaknesses. The story can be presented in a simpler language, straightforward and raw, and this often gives it a lot more emotional impact. In several ways historical accounts feels more real, and more personal when presented in panels. There’s a long history of doing just that: Persepolis, Maus, and last year’s March for example were all exemplary, and Hostage belongs right alongside them.
Delisle has done admirable work capturing the disorientation of Christophe’s hostage experience. The language barrier between him and his captors keeps him entirely in the dark as to why he’s been kidnapped, where he’s being held, what the status of negotiations (if any) for his release are, etc. His world is reduced to 4 walls and a ceiling. The reader is kept in the dark right there along with Christophe, experiencing his story as he tells it. Noises and events occur outside of his view and understanding, and he’s left only to guess what they are; constructing his greater world from fantasy. His mind escapes through his love of military history, as he attempts to lose himself in some of the great battles of Napoleon and the American Civil War.
The illustration uses subtlety and simplicity to emphasize how slight the differences in Christophe’s day-to-day life become while in captivity. For example, the thin light moving across the wall shows how his perception of time has been drastically reduced. It’s absence after he’s moved to a more tightly controlled area, is devastating. This isn’t said, but subtly shown. There’s a story unfolding in the words, and more detail unfolding in the illustrations. They meld together, and create the greater story where they overlap. It’s fantastically well done.
Occasionally a new person feeds him, or forgets to, or leaves him uncuffed at night. Sometimes he’s allowed a shower, sometimes his captors offer him a cigarette. The most heartbreaking part of this for me was the hyper excitement that Christophe experienced at the most basic of pleasures; things I take for granted every day of my life. Finding some Garlic in a storeroom that he’s kept in, and eating it after months of the same soup and bread day after day puts him into a state of euphoric bliss unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. That hit me really hard. When your life consists of being handcuffed to a radiator for months, any little deviation from the norm is the highest peak imaginable. At one point he’s given an omelette, and nearly forgets that he’s a captive, it’s so indescribably delicious to him.
Christophe obviously lived to tell his story to Delisle, but I’ll leave that resolution up to you to discover for yourselves. I will say that it’s quite a nerve wracking ordeal, and the most thrilling part of this book. I highly recommend checking it out. Hostage is available from Drawn & Quarterly.