“Hostage” by Guy Delisle (Drawn+Quarterly)

“HOSTAGE,” Guy DeLisle’s latest graphic biography, is pure torture to read.

And given the context, that assessment is offered as high compliment indeed.

One of my favorite graphic memoirs in terms of showing the power of spare storytelling is Delisle’s “Pyongyang,” a travelogue about his time in North Korea that offers rare insights into a repressive society. Now, with “Hostage” (Drawn + Quarterly), as translated by Helge Dascher, Delisle applies his narrative gifts to a more harrowing experience of fear and uncertainty in a foreign land.

“Hostage” renders the first-person nightmare of Christophe Andre, a humanitarian worker with Doctors Without Borders who was kidnapped in Nazran in the summer of 1997 by men from nearby Chechnya seeking ransom. The book is based on Delisle’s recordings of Andre’s accounts of the abduction and his attempts at escape.

What gives “Hostage” its most resonant power is not the rush of action but rather the attention to minute detail over the hundreds of pages of relative inaction.

What Delisle so brilliantly conveys here is the sensory experience of a life reduced to a room — and the effects on the brain when captivity lacks even the scheduled certainty of institutional incarceration. This is a highly confined purgatory that, without strength or will or hope, can become an emotional hell.

Heightening the reader’s immersive experience profoundly is the visual drone of the monochrome. We are forever half-squinting through Delisle’s bleak variations on gray, with his thin linework enhancing our sense of Andre’s weakening state. Even the darkly tinted radiator (to which he is handcuffed) and mattress in Andre’s stark room have more solid visual weight than the pale and imperiled captive. This is color as claustrophia.

One of the best illustrated biographical works about captivity is e.e. Cummings’s “The Enormous Room” (1922), in which he re-creates his World War I experience of being imprisoned in France with about 30 other men. Part of the magic of Cummings’s loose line drawings is how they play with perspective, and how one’s mental state begins to alter the sense of space and time.

“Hostage’s” Andre, by contrast, is in solitary confinement, sans camaraderie, so the sense of physical repression is all the more intense. When Andre is left uncuffed one day, the mere act of walking the small room unchecked for 15 minutes feels like “a kid breaking a rule,” and when he is able to touch the back wall with outstretched hands, “an ounce of freedom suddenly reappears.” Imagination sustains him, and then a chance at freedom challenges him.

“Hostage” includes a heart-quickening climax that is well-earned. Delisle worked for more than a decade, off and on, on this book. But its real staying power sits in the middle sections as we endure the weight of captivity’s suffocating cocoon — as our protagonist longs to fly from the scene, as free as a papillon.


Interior art from “Hostage” by Guy DeLisle. (Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly)

Interior art from “Hostage” by Guy DeLisle. (Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly)