“No man ever believes that the Bible means what it says,” George Bernard Shaw once said. “He is always convinced that it says what he means.” These varied interpretations inevitably lead to conflict, both emotional and political; one need look no further than the rivalling Biblical claims over ownership of Jerusalem. In “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City,” Canadian cartoonist and author Guy Delisle successfully portrays the political woes of Israel with a wise and well-researched perspective, built upon his own experiences in the city. In his fifth graphic novel and memoir, he enlivens Israel beyond its ever-present place on a newsstand. Through the concise visual imagery, the powerful perspective of an outsider, and the narrative that attempts to honestly reflect the quotidian struggles of those impacted by the Arab-Israel conflict, Delisle’s latest travelogue is an eye-opening glimpse into a conflict more famous for its headlines than its human dimension.
Delisle, the husband of a travelling member of Doctors Without Borders, spends his free time documenting his adventures in exotic and politically treacherous locales. His cartoons include the light humor that enlivens day-to-day happenings—including memorizing various religious holidays and grocery store schedules—and darker moments that portray the ever-present danger that surrounds him in Israel. Delisle has already written about Pyongyang, Burma, and Shenzhen in previous graphic novels, and his experience in this unique travelogue style serves him well as he attempts to navigate the political and ethnic tensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Combining elements of a memoir with a graphic novel is a relatively recent method of writing within the traditionally entertainment-oriented medium of comics. “Jerusalem: Chronicles” is drawn in a style reminiscent of the “Spy vs. Spy” comic strips; it includes elaborate backdrops, and its attention to significant detail places the reader in unfamiliar territory that is softened by a fellow tourist’s highly observant eye. The graphic novel streamlines narrative detail, thanks to the intersection of visual and textual imagery—here, a picture often is worth several lines of descriptive detail. Delisle never textually describes the blandly consistent Israeli desert, which reappears in every travel scene between Gaza and the West Bank. Instead, his illustrations allow the reader’s attention to dwell on the dialogue that progresses the narration. Ultimately, this dialogue, in conjunction with Delisle’s amateur reporting on the current conflict between Israel and Palestine, enhances the tension as the conflict spills over into everyday lives. A Christmas bombing in Gaza prevents families from peacefully celebrating the holiday; security checkpoints are mandatory upon entering locations as innocuous as a shopping mall—incidents like these form a snapshot of the jarring interruption this conflict has on the lives of those even tangentially involved.
Whereas most would think of comics as the purview of kids and subscribers of Sunday newspapers, Delisle’s work is clearly directed at a more grown-up audience, due to language, subject matter, and comedic subtlety. Between days of menial wandering and housekeeping, Delisle witnessed key moments in the development of Palestinian territory. The novel follows a chronological pattern: Chapters are demarcated by month of the year, August to July, and further subdivided into episodes of major events therein. This structure helps to facilitate a continuous narrative, a necessary aspect in conveying such ambiguous events. Things follow chronologically, rather than in a contrived conceptualization, which forms an honest reflection of Delisle’s disorienting experiences in a foreign land.
Though Delisle takes an innovative approach in describing his adventure, predictable travel-guide elements do appear in the work—yet their effect is more helpful than clichéd. He inserts a variety of clarifying maps, which prove indispensable to making sense of such a convoluted political landscape. These maps often reflect the sometimes arbitrary boundaries claimed and drawn between multiple ethnic groups all vying for control of various areas of Israel. Delisle, himself a tourist in a foreign land, contextualizes his evolving perception and experience in his temporary home as he tries, repeatedly and with varying degrees of success, to overcome bureaucratic boundaries in his attempts to visit contested religious locations. “I swear, when you see the spectacle religion puts on around here, you don’t feel like being a believer,” Delisle says with exasperation as he tries to circumvent yet another restriction in place due to fighting.
The novel’s greatest triumph results from its outsider perspective in a land of endemic distrust. Delisle, along with a variety of foreigners all working to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace accords, tries to live neutrally amongst Muslims, Christians, Jews, and politically opinionated atheists, each trying to establish their control of the Holy Land. Delisle’s initial ignorance and frequent confusion reflect the baffling intricacies of Gazan citizenship and military mobilization, not to mention borders and their international legitimacy. Yet the limited scope of Delisle’s perspective begs further research on the part of the intrigued reader. In “Jerusalem,” he provides a multifaceted experience that is both informative and entertaining as he tries to make sense of a murky and complex situation. In trying to stay neutral and fairly portray modern Israel, he aligns himself—perhaps unwittingly—with the reader in a modern crusade for truth.