Guy Delisle’s “Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City”

“Have you read the Guy Delisle graphic novel Jerusalem?” wrote my friend C, who sometimes pops into my inbox with interesting ideas and comments on life. “Since you were recently there,” she went on, “you might find it relevant, or maybe even entertaining and heart wrenching. There is even an important character at the Lutheran church.”
This was my first ever recommendation to a graphic novel. Had it been about vampires or medieval Spain I might have balked. But Jerusalem is….well, it’s Jerusalem. As you’ll know if you’ve been there, there’s no spot on earth quite like it. I was interested in seeing what a cartoonist would do with the place, that hasn’t already been done by Jews, Arabs, Crusaders, religious zealots, Zionists, Muslims, Christians and the million other types of people who seem to have a deadly interest in these few acres of the not-so-holy Holy Land. Besides, where else does a best-seller feature a Lutheran pastor, even in a small cameo appearance?
I got the novel at the library, and started reading. And C was absolutely right: I did find the novel relevant. And entertaining. AND more than a little heart-wrenching. And because, with the Waterloo Lutheran Seminary group I visited the Lutheran chapel and hospital at Augusta Victoria in East Jerusalem, right above the Mount of Olives, I wanted to see it again, through an outsider’s eyes. It turns out that, unlike the omnipresent dividing Wall (which features again and again in the book), Augusta Victoria became a place of rest and reflection for the author (Delisle became friends with the Lutheran pastor, who is a comics fan, and had his studio there).
I’m not a follower of comics and despite his success, I didn’t know Delisle’s work. He’s a Quebecois who has lived many years in France. This book (originally published in French, English translation by Helge Dascher, published in 2012 by Quill & Quire of Montreal) is the result of his family’s one-year stay in Jerusalem. During that year Delisle took care of the kids and sketched while his wife worked for Medecins sans Frontières in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Get this novel and read it. It’s worth it. Firstly, Delisle is honest but hilariously understated in his portrayals of life in the so-called Holy Land. There’s no shouted polemic. Instead Delisle’s slightly dopey, typically nice Quebec/Canadian alter-ego meanders through, and chronicles, the absurdities that seemingly pop up everyday in and around Jerusalem: an Israeli soldier with a massive machine gun slung in front of him and an equally large guitar slung over his bag, Palestinian women shopping in the settlement grocery store the expatriate workers from overseas, in solidarity with Palestine, have been so studiously trying to avoid, Christian priests coming to blows over which part of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is theirs, Palestinian children afraid to go to school in the West Bank because of the settlers and Israeli taxi drivers afraid to go into East Jerusalem because of the Palestinians. One of Delisle’s funniest lines is “thanks God for making me an atheist”.
The most touching, and yet still understated, part of the book is at its end, as the family prepare to leave after their year-long stint. But I won’t spoil the ending for you. Read it yourself. Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City is the kind of book that, like a seemingly harmless “nice guy”, sometimes surprises you. Delisle’s everyman is a sharp-eyed observer, and this novel has a punchline, even if you have to look for it.