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Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City - review

Interior panels from Jerusalem
Interior panels from Jerusalem

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.