Translated by Helge Dascher
Cartoonist Guy Delisle has carved out a special niche writing about strange foreign lands. That’s his approach to Pyongyang and Burma Chronicles. Noting the strangeness of a place may not be particularly insightful analysis, but it works perfectly for Delisle. His stockpiling of numerous insignificant details mirrors how most clueless Westerners experience the rest of the world. Delisle has become the spokesperson for early stage culture shock because he never achieves true mastery of his subject. Not that he seems to care. Even when set in a country that would supposably be more familiar to Delisle’s readers, Jerusalem: Chronicles from The Holy City still follows in the footsteps of those past travelogues. But when the same style is applied to this more ambitious work, its homespun charms are stretched and bloated, and ultimately exposed as a kind of careless affectation.
Delisle’s cartoon avatar always begins his journey as a blank slate, as if he’s never travelled abroad or did any prior research, and this ersatz naiveté mimics the gap between tourist and native. In this case, his self-enforced blandness provides a peculiar contrast to his tumultuous surroundings. Jerusalem is, above all else, a city mired in identity politics. Delisle acts perplexed when it’s explained to him that the international community doesn’t recognize the city as Israel’s capital (which left me incredulous. Is he that unaware of the Arab-Israeli conflict?). The first visible symbol of how identity has altered the landscape is when Delisle visits a checkpoint at the infamous West Bank/Israel separation wall and watches as the guards fire tear gas into the crowd when responding to a minor disturbance.
That wall becomes a favorite motif of his, a metaphor for a country defined by every kind of barrier. Delisle learns to avoid the “Ultra-Orthodox” Jewish enclave Mea Shearim, especially after noticing a sign that warns outsiders to stay away. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is managed by six Christian denominations whose representatives behave like rival street gangs. After watching a news report about a celebration at the church that comes to blows, Delisle delivers a rather banal (and tone deaf) remark “But when you think that Christians can’t even set an example in a conflict that’s polarized the world for so long, it’s a bit depressing....” then thanks God for being an atheist. Delisle visits the once bustling city of Hebron, now the battleground for Palestinians and Jewish settlers fighting over the sacred Cave of the Patriarchs. Netting is hung above the streets to protect Muslims from garbage tossed at their direction by the settlers. And he tries to come to grips with the clash over the two most high profile religious landmarks in all of Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall and the Dome on the Rock, noting the queer alliance between conservative Jews and fundamentalist Christians who believe that knocking down the mosque to rebuild the temple is a prerequisite to bringing about the Biblical Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ.
To a nonbeliever like Delisle, these barriers present a huge headache. It makes the city a confusing maze of no-go zones linked by disparate forms of public transportation serving different segregated neighborhoods. When he gets lost and accidentally drives into Mea Shearim during the Sabbath, he’s attacked by an angry mob. It complicates normal routines like shopping and driving the kids to school, not to mention exploring the rest of the country. Extremely paranoid airport security makes Delisle's occasional brief trips abroad almost intolerable. His most self-aware line is delivered after he learns that the border authorities have rejected his request to conduct a comics workshop in Gaza. A colleague informs Delisle “They said, ‘The guy who draws comics? Forget it.’” This causes him to wonder “Maybe they've got me mixed up with Joe Sacco?” Like many of the expat community he regularly interacts with, Delisle is vaguely sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. As in Burma, he’s accompanying his significant other, who works for the humanitarian organization Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). And as with Burma, it’s also the cause of his emotional detachment. Delisle knows the assignment will last only a year and that he will not develop a deeper relationship with the place. But each of Israel's varied groups believe they have an irrefutable connection to this slither of land which precludes everyone else's claims. The Palestinians in particular appear to have no choice but to keep fighting for their ever-shrinking share of territory if they don't want to loose it to an implacable foe. Palestinian cartoonists and illustrators in Gaza are prevented from getting work in Jerusalem. But as an outsider and rootless cosmopolitan, Delisle has the freedom, or rather the privilege, to leave at any time.
And as with Burma, it’s not really about the host country itself, but about Delisle’s own bumbling efforts to adjust to said country’s weird customs. In smaller doses, his everyman schtick can be amusing. The multi-ethnic setting provides plenty of opportunity for Delisle to exercise his gift for caricature. But spread over a discursive, three hundred page graphic novel, the facile storytelling can start to grate. Do I really need to hear about every quiet spot or nice place to grab a bite? Or every bothersome checkpoint? Must I listen about how difficult it is to find good housekeepers or babysitters? Or Delisle drawing himself complain about how he’s too harried from taking care of the kids to actually draw? Jerusalem was the first Delisle travelogue I found a chore to get through at around the halfway point. Delisle also spent a fair amount of time recounting his domestic situation in Burma. Problem is his family portrait is equally nondescript. His SO’s job at MSF is barely discussed, let alone her unique viewpoint on the situation, and his two generically cute children are sort of a black hole that suck up much of Delisle’s time and energy. This saps reader interest the way being forced to look at someone else’s family vacation pictures would drain most people.
The lack of an overarching narrative over such a lengthy book draws attention to the limitations of the art. Delisle employs the occasional splash of intense color to break up the monotony. This just underlines the ugliness of the monochrome color scheme, exacerbated by the geometric flatness, minimal characterizations and wide-angle perspective. Delisle’s overall aesthetic hasn’t evolved much since Pyongyang, but at this point his commitment to it starts to either look like a withdrawal into a protective shell, or maybe a form of artistic laziness. Whatever the reason, Delisle remains mostly a master of the incidental.