Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City - review

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City

Guy Delisle.

Jonathan Cape, 336pp, £16.99

The thing with cartoonists is this: no one really knows what to do with them. I have known many who have trouble getting through customs barriers simply because when they hand over the landing card, their occupation – inked tightly in perfect capital letters – is an absurd anomaly, and by extension so are they: cartoonists are not a thing uniformed guards deal with regularly. I have seen gleeful cartoonists snip neat squares of text out of local newspapers to present them at the desk as more efficient and believable versions of their official documents: "I am a guest in your country," they will plead feverishly, "Look! They wrote about me in the newspaper!" before adding: "I really did win an award!"

Simple difficulties like this make the cartoonist’s travelogue a different beast from your regular Lonely Planet guide. Explaining your flimsy career to tired workers at an Australian customs barrier is one thing, but to drunk teenage soldiers with guns at one of Jerusalem's many checkpoints? Near suicide. It makes you look at a country differently, usually through the frosted glass of some official cell you’ve been temporarily held in while they go through your stuff.

By this point in his career Guy Delisle must have countless stories of customs barriers, with at least five of them making it into his latest graphic novel, Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City. As a result of his wife’s job with Médecins Sans Frontiéres, or Doctors Without Borders, Delisle often spends extended periods of time in politically unstable places – Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Burma – reporting back on each place in increasingly excellent autobiographical comics. And through the course of these works the irony of his wife’s job and the borders he is personally up against on a daily basis is not lost on Delisle: while she works he explores the city, going to the very edges of the Israeli/Arab borders and seeing what he finds there, how the cultures clash at the meeting point. Sometimes it is a physical barrier, like the high separation wall he becomes obsessed with and sketches from countless angles before he is moved on by confused officials playing it safe. Sometimes it’s a mental one. In the case of transport, Delisle unwittingly found the root for China Miéville’s novel The City and The City in which two cities co-exist on the same geographical location but “unsee” the other’s infrastructure and people: Jerusalem has a transport system for Israeli buses that travel everywhere but the Arab quarters, and vice versa. When Delisle mentions this to his Israeli cab driver he is baffled. "The Arabs have buses?"

Jerusalem is Delisle’s biggest and most accomplished work to date, not just because of the page count or because he’s inside the walls of one of the most secretive places on earth, but because he’s coming at it from a very specific place: one where he is as excited to find the an ancient church as he is to find a playground with a really good slide. Transporting your own kids to a city of major violent conflict would undoubtedly put them at the forefront of your mind – it’s little wonder his wife’s job is usually one reserved for single people rather than parents with young families to worry about – so many of the vignettes are about the how all this stuff affects the children who are frequently on the rough end of violence they don’t understand. While it is their stories that break Delisle’s heart the hardest, an MSF psychologist tells him it’s the kids who bounce back after just a couple of months of therapy. The adults: not so much.

Delisle’s graphic novels are not dry politics, nor are they Joe Sacco-style politics. He never picks a team, but reports stuff anecdotally as he sees it from his position on the sidelines, somehow avoiding any subjectivity. Sacco, who is best known for his 1992 graphic novel Palestine about the plight of the Palestinian people in the West Bank of the Gaza Strip, gives a variety of silenced people a voice – Delisle’s is strictly his own head on paper.

It’s a conversational dialogue in which he jumps deftly between the sacred and the mundane. Like we all do on holiday, he points out strange fashions that still exist like they’ve crawled off into pockets of the world and resisted evolution, as if no one told them about Hitler or his facial hair. Tourists who rent huge wooden crosses so as to travel in the footsteps of Jesus probably don’t notice the poor guy who has to carry them back down off the hill, three in one go, but Delisle does. They’re stories of human minutiae in a place we only see in times of political strife on the news, when it blends into all the other stories of political strife and we become numb to it. Without Delisle we might never learn what it’s actually like to live in a place like this, or get a realistic idea of the people we would meet if we did. He’s clear-eyed, good-hearted, he takes what he sees and he turns it into art. Even the stuff about customs.

Interior panels from Jerusalem

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State