Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City
By Guy Delisle
Drawn & Quarterly, 320 pages, $24.95
A city so religiously and historically intense that it’s got its own eponymous syndrome for visitors who flip out under pressure, Jerusalem is the unequivocal go-to destination for anyone wanting a look at the world’s epicenter of multi-faith fanaticism. An inspiration and a battleground for the religiously and, more recently, nationally inclined, Jerusalem has long attracted pilgrims from the three Abrahamic faiths who trek there to live, to pray, to eat and to conquer.
Chronicles of travels to the holy city are legion and have, over the centuries, become a distinct literary genre. A new and novel entry into this category is Quebecois cartoonist Guy Delisle’s “Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City,” the first such chronicle told in graphic novel form. In it, Delisle, author of a number of fascinating visual travelogues to such places as Burma, Shenzhen and Pyongyang, takes a visual stab at his year living in Jerusalem.
Rendered in Delisle’s trademark variation on ligne claire, the visual style made famous by Hergé’s “The Adventures of Tintin,” the images carry the reader through the author’s quotidian experiences in the holy city. But Delisle isn’t a religious pilgrim — in fact, he’s an atheist who is more interested in history than in achieving revelation. As a result, his sketches of historical sites, which are often drawn in richer detail than most of the regular narrative panels, create engaging visual markers that dot the story.
But don’t delude yourself that Delisle is a steely adventurer, hungry for action. He spent a year in Jerusalem only because his wife, who works for the French nongovernmental organization, Doctors Without Borders, happened to be stationed there. While taking care of their two kids and leading occasional comics workshops, he documents their stay in the holy city.
One of the unusual aspects of Delisle’s story is that he and his family live out the year in the Arab East Jerusalem neighborhood of Beit Hanina. This fact should make it interesting, especially for Jewish readers who might be in unfamiliar territory. But the sad reality is that the East Jerusalem Delisle describes is actually kind of boring. In fact, he sums it up quite nicely in a conversation with an airport security agent who asks if he likes living there. “Not really, no,” Delisle says. “There’s no playgrounds, no cafes, nothing but garbage. I didn’t think Jerusalem would be like that. I’m disappointed, to tell you the truth.”