Not Your Typical Hero: Hostage by Guy Delisle

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It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the first panel of Guy Delisle’s Hostage. Against the white page, it feels like stepping inside on a sunny day: a layer of inky shadow flattens, disorients. The top of a building and some telephone wires edge along the bottom of the full-page panel. The rest is space: a dark night sky stretching upwards, a plunge into deep bluish gray. And then a single, arresting phrase: “It was in the early morning hours of July 2 that I was kidnapped.”

The drama of the next thirty pages unfolds in darkness. A car, headlights slicing white across the panel, pulls up to the building. Four shadows jump out and storm inside. A bearded Frenchman named Christophe André is wrestled out of bed, shackled, and dragged off into the night. The action-packed panels are captioned with André’s narration: it’s 1997, and he’s working as a financial administrator on a Médecins Sans Frontières mission in the Russian Republic of Ingushetia. He has no idea why, on this warm summer night, he is being trafficked at gunpoint over the Chechen border by a group of unidentified men whose language he doesn’t speak. As his captors drive him to a distant village, march him up three flights of stairs, and lock him in an empty room, the murky darkness makes it all feel like a strange dream: outlines shift and bleed, shapes collide.

When light finally dawns, it brings with it a harsh reality. Four blank walls, a straw mattress, and a locked door. For the next four hundred pages, as André suffers through one hundred and eleven bewildering, agonizing days as a hostage held for ransom in Chechnya, these elements will constitute his whole world.

The story gives Delisle, a nonfiction cartoonist best known for his autobiographical travelogues, extraordinary visual and narrative constraints. The kidnappers shuttle André between a few locations, locking him each time into a spare bedroom or storeroom and leaving him to his thoughts. He spends the majority of the book handcuffed to a radiator in an otherwise empty room. So, between the guns-blazing opening sequence and the adrenaline-soaked conclusion–which feel like action comics, minus the primary colors–it’s panel after panel of not much at all. A radiator and a straw mattress on the floor. A boarded-up window that keeps the scene dim and gray. A dead lightbulb dangling from a wire. And a lot of time to think. The panels are spare, nearly empty; it’s André’s inner monologue, recounted to Delisle through interviews and appearing here as first-person narrative captions, that populates the space. André stays sane by keeping track of the date, so the book is structured into day-long chapters that each begin with a declaration: “Today is July 4. Friday, July 4.” Beyond that, they’re all the same. The light of dawn and the slow sink of dusk, punctuated by three bathroom breaks, three bowls of watery vegetable soup, and three moments of relief from the handcuffs.

With so little to go on, Delisle turns to color, light, and line to create a visual narrative. The result is a brilliant testimony to the possibilities of the graphic form. A restrained color palette consisting only of gray and steel blue makes us see the monotony of captivity; the repetition of visual elements and a masterful use of shadow and light recreate the cyclical rhythm of life in the room. Against this visual regularity, small details and differences take on a heightened significance, leading to some exquisite visual moments: one page depicts nothing but a square of light sliding across the walls of six consecutive panels, marking the passage of time. Small gestural changes set against a repetition of near-identical backgrounds communicate the fluctuations of André’s inner monologue: his head tilts, his eyes lower. Delisle renders it all with a cartoonist’s economy of line and acute awareness of expression.

Delisle is not a graphic reporter or political cartoonist. Even his books on Jerusalem and Burma remain firmly in the realm of personal narrative, to the point where he has characterized them as “long postcards.” Hostage is his first attempt to tell someone else’s story, but it remains as deeply personal. Until the very brief epilogue, which fills in a few details about André’s life after captivity, Delisle resists the temptation to step in with historical or political context, or any omniscience at all. As a result, we’re held captive along with André, given access to exactly as much information as he has. The broader political milieu can be inferred through contextual details that crop up in André’s inner monologue­—“According to the emergency plan, communication should have been established in the first forty-eight hours. And we already have contacts with many of the clan leaders in the region”—but neither André’s thoughts nor Delisle’s work lingers much on the violent instability of 1990’s post-independence Chechnya. And despite these hints that an NGO worker’s kidnapping wouldn’t have been wholly unexpected to our protagonist, he’s left utterly in the dark when it comes to his own circumstance (Why him? Why hasn’t his team made contact yet?), especially since he can’t communicate with his captors.

Nevertheless, he refuses to dwell on it. “I don’t know where I am… I don’t know why I’m here… I have no idea what’s going on outside… It’s no use thinking about it.” Instead, he trains his thoughts on ordinary things, such as the possibility of missing his sister’s wedding (and the buffet he won’t get to enjoy). As the days drag on, his monologue flattens into a cycle so predictable that even the smallest interruptions become exciting narrative events. In one memorable scene, he’s able to snatch a clove of garlic and hide it beneath his mattress. He spends the next hours going over “every detail of how I’m going to savor this little wonder.” When he finally does, it’s the purest moment of happiness in the book: “Good God! It’s so great, I feel dizzy!”

For all the drama and political intrigue that is often associated with hostage narratives, André’s banal joys and bumbling reactions are what give this one its weight. André is an ordinary guy, thrust into an extremely unusual situation, and most of the time he doesn’t feel rage, or adrenaline, or even a slow-burning hatred–just powerlessness and bewilderment. He’s self-conscious, not quite sure how to act. Early on, his captors offer him a vodka after the evening meal. André thanks them and wishes them goodnight as they leave the room. Later, he berates himself for being polite: “Oh man! What are you doing? You’re locked to a radiator and listen to you! ‘Good night’… I need to cut it out right now.” When he finally receives details about the million-dollar ransom his captors are trying to negotiate with Médecins Sans Frontières, André doesn’t feel relief, but a deep sense of shame: “How will I ever look my friends in the face again–all these people I’ve worked with–after making them lose that kind of money?” He’s a reluctant hero, and his captors are reluctant villains: after all, they’re holding him hostage in the spare rooms of apartments where they cook, sleep, and live. One of them carries around a kitchen knife to appear menacing, and they occasionally forget to lock the door. These aren’t criminal masterminds; they’re opportunists looking to make a buck.

A different telling of André’s story might overlook these awkward, human moments in order to maximize the violent drama of his capture and his courageous, adrenaline-fueled escape. Because Delisle’s refuses to do so, it collapses the distance between ordinary life and extraordinary circumstance, making a harrowing story feel remarkably familiar. Against the muscular inevitability of Hollywood heroism, Hostage introduces the possibility that, in the face of the incomprehensible, we might remain ourselves. We might have to summon unprecedented strength while still mired in our awkwardness, our anxieties, and our self-doubt. We might even convince ourselves, when presented with an opportunity to escape, that “the safest thing to do is stay,” because going will only ever be “a leap into the unknown.” From this angle, André’s resilience is tectonic and deeply resonant.

André is a military history buff, so when the boredom becomes too much, he recreates historical battles in his head. On Day 38, he daydreams of Austerlitz: “Langeron manages to take Sokolnitz, while Doctorow loses Telnitz to a counterattack by Davout. Attacked from three sides, Saint-Hilaire orders a bayonet charge that proves successful. In the centre, Bernadotte seizes Blasowitz, while Soult takes back the Pratzen Heights, where he sets up his cannons.” Portraits of generals fill the panels, and a model battlefield floats above André’s head with the key positions marked out. A complex maneuvering of political strategy, advantage shifting with every move–we might imagine a hostage situation in similar terms. A flip of the page, though, and we’re thrust abruptly out of the daydream, into a full-width view of the room from above. It’s a devastating drawing, large and blue and bare. We gaze down at the small figure that is André, fruitlessly tugging against the handcuff that chains him to the radiator. He’s not in some grand historical narrative. He’s in somebody’s apartment.

This is the masterful move Delisle makes with this book: he keeps us in the room. Refusing to dramatize or overextend André’s account, he gives us exactly what it was: one hundred and eleven days spent locked in a room for no discernible reason. Instead of sparing us the monotony and tedium, he lingers in it. Instead of making meaning from André’s story, he simply lets it take up space. To flip through Hostage is to occupy that space, to feel the full weight of a human life acted on by incomprehensible forces. It is not most meaningful as a thrilling account of real-life heroism or as a case study of geopolitical conflict. Rather, it stands as a monument to the bewildering ways in which power and politics reverberate through ordinary lives, and the quiet tenacity of those who endure the tremors.

Laura Thorne is a grad student, writer, and artist who lives in Brooklyn. More from this author →