I have my fair share of graphic novels but they are mostly from the fantastical/ superhero side of things. I’ve read maybe a couple of non-fiction graphic novels in my time but definitely not enough. The last one was at the end of 2016 when I managed to squeeze in The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia by Bryan Talbot and Mary Talbot before midnight January 31st. I don’t read enough non-fiction as it is so I should probably embrace the graphic novel format to manage more. I mean all those words replaced with pictures. It makes getting through a story so much easier. I first came across this book when I was killing time in Waterstones waiting for a friend. I spent a lot of money that I hadn’t wanted to and could have spent way more. This was one of the graphic novels being recommended by staff and it sounded like a must read. So I bought it… but somewhere that was selling it for less than Waterstones. I never really know how to read a graphic novel. I feel like it should be in one sitting but that feels like a bit of a mammoth task. So I spent a few days on this and I think it worked better. You definitely could read it in one go but I think I benefited from having a break now and then.
Hostage is the newest non-fiction graphic novel from Guy Delisle, a French-Candaian artist who has won plenty of awards for his previous work. His latest tells the true story of Christophe André. In 1997, Christophe war working for Médecins Sans Frontières in Ingushetia in the north Caucasus. When he was woken in the middle of the night by a group of armed men, he assumed that they had come to rob the NGO’s safe because it was currently full. Instead, he was bundled into a car and driven over the border in Chechnya. He was handcuffed to a radiator and held captive in the same dark room for the next 3 months.
Now, as powerful and interesting a story as Christophe’s is, it is hardly the stuff that graphic novels are made for. It is certainly a massive change from Delisle’s previous works which are more like travelogues than harrowing tales of kidnapped Frenchmen. Hostage is a very monotonous tale where very little happens. Christophe’s days are mostly spent alone and are only punctuated by trips to the bathroom or the occasional bowl of watery soup. We, the reader, experience the same world that the captive was experiencing. There is no mention of the outside world and no exploration of the troubles in Chechnya.
This isn’t a story about place or context. Nothing that is happening outside of that room is of any consequence to Delisle. This is a narrative the deals with the mental struggle that Christophe goes through in order to survive his ordeal. We see him start his journey in a positive frame of mind: imagining his colleagues working hard to bring him back. He expects to be kept prisoner for a matter of days before being able to go back to his life as if nothing happened. As time moves on, he realises that everything is going to be way more complicated than he hoped. He starts to torture himself by asking questions he can’t answer and imagining what is happening in the real world. We see the confidence and strength seep from him as quickly as his beard grows. His supposed weaknesses haunt him and his occasionally victories offer him dizzying highs. It’s a true study into the mind of a human being put in an unimaginable situation. And the artwork and style only adds to the tale.
Even Delisle’s use of frames per page adds to the tension within the story. The less that happens the fewer frames per page. The larger sections of art slowing the story down and allowing the reader to experience the same sense of repetition and boredom that Christophe is feeling. When something different happens, like another person enters the room or a sound it heard, the frames get smaller to fit more on a page. This heightens the tension and brings a new urgency to the pace. Having more detail crammed into one page, you are almost able to feel the increase in Christophe’s heart-rate as he hopes that freedom is, finally, at hand.
Hostage is definitely the kind of graphic novel that should not be a captivating read. You don’t have a great deal of visual variety and the story doesn’t really go anywhere. Yet, Guy Delisle has managed to turn it into a masterpiece. His muted colours and simplistic artwork, put you into the room with Christophe. You become as desperate for information and hope as he is. You feel the same claustrophobia and fear that he feels. This is as close to feeling trapped as a graphic novel is possibly able to make you feel. You won’t be able to believe what you’re reading but you won’t be able to put this book down. It’s a must read.