French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle takes us to an empty room and handcuffs us to a radiator as he immerses us in a viscerally intimate retelling of Christophe André’s time as a captive in Chechnya.
Written and Illustrated by Guy Delisle
In the middle of the night in 1997, Doctors Without Borders administrator Christophe André was kidnapped by armed men and taken away to an unknown destination in the Caucasus region. For three months, André was kept handcuffed in solitary confinement, with little to survive on and almost no contact with the outside world. Close to twenty years later, award-winning cartoonist Guy Delisle (Pyongyang, Jerusalem, Shenzhen, Burma Chronicles) recounts André’s harrowing experience in Hostage, a book that attests to the power of one man’s determination in the face of a hopeless situation.
Marking a departure from the author’s celebrated first-person travelogues, Delisle tells the story through the perspective of the titular captive, who strives to keep his mind alert as desperation starts to set in. Working in a pared down style with muted colour washes, Delisle conveys the psychological effects of solitary confinement, compelling us to ask ourselves some difficult questions regarding the repercussions of negotiating with kidnappers and what it really means to be free. Thoughtful, intense, and moving, Hostage takes a profound look at what drives our will to survive in the darkest of moments.
Chechnya has been in the news recently because of the discrimination against and killing of gay people there. Part of why I was interested in this book was to contextualise what’s happening in Chechnya, however that not what this book is (if you want some context for what’s happening in Chechnya, I recommend this Vox video essay as a good place to start). “Hostage” is not Sarah Glidden’s “Rolling Blackouts,” it’s not a Joe Sacco book, it isn’t comics journalism. This is a focused, first-person narrative, we never leave André, it is about the experience of being held hostage for three months, rather than any broader political contexts. And that’s not a bad thing. While it would be interesting to read about Chechnya, it is equally interesting to get inside the head of someone in an extraordinary situation, regardless of context. That is what Delisle does, and he does it so well.
Delisle’s style immediately draws you in. It starts simply – calmly – opening with a big splash page establishing shot, before pulling into three panels as the kidnappers arrive, then six as they grab André. The panel number very quickly increases as the tension of the moment mounts. The panels come in like bars on a cage, André is trapped and we trapped there with him. This is how we are pulled in so strongly in just a few pages.
But these moments of increased tension are not that common. What this book makes clear is how tedious the life of the kidnapped is. A routine is quickly established, André is kept handcuffed in the corner, released at certain moments to pee or eat. There’s a number of pages where we just bounce through a series of small panels showing details of this room; the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, the boarded-up window, the locked door. Then there’s these larger panels showing André alone in his corner, with the three lines of the walls and floor extending to the edge of the panel, making the room seem vast, never-ending, while André is just this little thing that its eaten.
It’s not just the panel structure in “Hostage” that is so masterful, it comes down to every aspect of Delisle’s art. Although it is more realistic than in some of his previous work, it maintains that universality that simplistic and abstracted cartooning has – it’s easy to project yourself into this situation. In an interview with Paste Magazine, Delisle talks about developing a visual style for this book, how the basic, sketchy line he used came from both a need for speed and to make the image ‘fragile … to express a little bit the fragile situation of Christophe, and keep it very simple because he was there on his own.’Continued below
The colours of “Hostage” are also notably captivating. Delisle exclusively uses a variety of greys, and some grey-ish blue, and manages so much with so little. With just small changes from darker grey to the bluer end, Delisle can elicit powerful emotional reactions in a reader. In the Paste Magazine interview Delisle explains that, ‘the color is simple. [Christophe André] told me, he was in a gray shadow. There was no real light in the room. It was at 50 percent all the time, so I showed that with variations of grays to express that. That was it.’
Most of what makes this book shine is how immersed in the small moments with André in that
room. But those small moments add together join together to paint a picture of Christophe André as a person. Fundamentally, this a character study, from page 1 to page 432 we are in André’s head. We get his narration in the first person, present tense (apart from the first day) throughout the book, as each day he tries to keep track of the date; or fantasises about beating up his captors and escaping to home; or tries to distract himself by recalling historic battles (André’s is a military history buff). But then the gravity of his reality will come back. It goes silent and we bounce through those details of the room again. Boarded-up window. Lightbulb. Locked door. Handcuff.
Even though this isn’t written by André, it’s mediated through Delisle, “Hostage” feels so authentic to his voice and perspective, despite only having one day, 15 years ago where Delisle recorded and took notes about André’s story. They did remain in contact, however, as Delisle talks about, in the Paste Magazine interview, he would send pages to André to curb his own worries about putting ‘words into someone else’s mouth.’
On the back of the book, there’s quotes from Joe Sacco, Sarah Glidden and Matt Bors – three current titans of non-fiction comics. I think the first sentence of the Glidden quote gets to the heart of what’s so impressive about “Hostage:” ‘A book about a man trapped in the corner of a room should not be exhilarating, but somehow Delisle has managed to create just that.’