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.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear