Unsurprisingly, memoirist/travel writer/journalist/moonlighting animator Guy Delisle’s reportage in Jerusalem (“Chronicles from the Holy City” according to the subtitle) works best when there’s something to report. The intrusion of the Wall that separates Israel from the tiny, separate, and shrinking enclaves collectively known as Palestine into the lives of citizens on both sides is the most obvious example, and the one with the most resonance with the stuff of comics itself: drawing lines to separate one thing from another. The wall reduces the land on which one Palestinian once herded goats into something not much wider than an alley. It turns a little door that once enabled priests to go visit nuns and vice versa, left intact as the wall went up around it, into a mockery of the freedom of movement and association these people once enjoyed. The wall erases important religious landmarks for all manner of denominations and sects, becoming the dominant feature of Bethlehem, the town where Jesus “love thy neighbor as thyself” Christ was born, and a site of pilgrimage for many of the hardline American Christians who fund the most intransigent elements of Israeli politics and society. The wall becomes a canvas for blackly comic graffiti: One artist’s “I LOVE WAR” is detourned by another into “I LOVE WARHOL,” while the sight of an ominous “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” practically stops the whole comic in its tracks. The wall literalizes the legal and cultural obstructions that keep the two separate societies so separate: Delisle has an especially hard time internalizing the fact that the young illustrators and animators he meets in Palestine literally cannot get work in the thriving Israeli scene, because they’re not allowed in.
Delisle does an even better job, though, with a much less (literally) monumental phenomenon that demonstrates the religious tension: depressingly squalid outbreaks of workaday religious chauvinism and bigotry, directed primarily, in Delisle’s limited experience, by Jews against non-Jews. His Doctors Without Borders van is nearly run off the road by fundamentalists when it accidentally drives into an ultra-orthodox area on the Sabbath. He meets Bedouin children who can no longer make the two-hour (!) walk to and from school because they get pelted with rocks by Israeli settlers. He walks the settlement streets where Palestinians are allowed to walk and sees the netting strung above the thoroughfare to catch the garbage and debris thrown at the Muslims by their Jewish neighbors. He has a near-violent middle-finger exchange with a guy driven to brick-throwing rage simply because he recognizes that Delisle’s vehicle belongs to an organization that does charity work with the Palestinians. ) He notes the outbreaks of xenophobia that greet many incursions by other faiths into the Holy Land, from the visiting Pope to a well-meaning German sculptor’s replica of the Ark of the Covenant. These confrontations allow his knack for caricature to come through: Each new permutation of beard, glasses, frowny face, and settlement-chic fashion is bracingly entertaining despite the ugliness of the actions. Mind you, he also notes that Israel’s press, despite the restrictions placed on its access to, say, Gaza during the most recent war (“Operation Cast Lead”), is freer not only than that of its neighbors but, in terms of the range of opinions allowed regarding the actions of the Israeli government, than the United States as well. He’s also prevented, both bureaucratically and by the advice of colleagues, from traveling into comparably fundamentalist and radicalized Palestinian areas, so the picture remains incomplete.
But that doesn’t stop Delisle from adding piece after piece after piece anyway. Some strong moments, and Delisle’s customarily breezy and effective cartooning, aside, Jerusalem is a slog — an endless barrage of incident in which the incidents capable of provoking genuine engagement, let alone fervor, are all but overwhelmed. Clocking in at 320 pages, over twice the size of Delisle’s masterpiece Pyongyang and nearly as large again as Shenzhen, it affords any given observation, from a guns-drawn confrontation at a checkpoint to a goofy cleaning lady to trips abroad that quite obviously don’t take place in Jerusalem at all, equal weight; few if any of them give off any sense that their inclusion is necessary.
I suppose that’s the point — Delisle is not Joe Sacco, as a joke near the end of the book drives home, and he’s not out to tell a “story” in either the sense of a storyteller or a reporter. His M.O. is to record his life when that life is placed in an unfamiliar and (to put it midly) politically problematic environment, under the assumption that the result of that recording will provide a useful window on the interaction between the personal and the political. That’s all well and good when you’re in such underreported environments as North Korea, China’s designated Special Economic Zones, or Burma. But unlike those sealed-off locales, Jerusalem (even the out-of-sight out-of-mind Palestinian areas) is arguably the most reported-on location on the planet, as befits its centrality to the current Ocenania/Eurasia/Eastasia arrangement of fanatical Islam, Judaism, and Christianity as they attempt to draft the rest of us into their divinely ordained assaults on one another. As such, unless you’re as much of a tyro to the entire topic as Delisle portrays himself to be — not realizing Yom Kippur is anything other than a war, or that Gaza residents can’t leave, and so on and so on — you need a reason to revisit this material that you can’t get anywhere else.
Delisle’s drawn-out accretion of detail is not that reason. It’s clear now that Burma Chronicles‘ exchange of the focus (from the title on down) of Pyongyang and Shenzhen for a sort of colloidal suspension of clear-eyed observations of a deeply unpleasant way of living amid seen-it-before kinda-cute family-guy comic business was the start of a trend away from Delisle’s previous strengths as an observer. Whether it’s because he’s legitimately more interested in recording how harrying family life abroad can be, or because the harrying nature of family life abroad left him with little choice, is sort of a chicken-and-egg question; the end result is the same. How many peaceful cafes or lovely courtyards or fun playgrounds can he discover and dub a future fixture of his sojourn, only to never show himself there again? How many mild inconveniences with the bus and car travel necessitated by Israel’s segregated, checkpoint-dotted road system can he depict? How many times can he draw multiple panels illustrating that he’s out of ideas for how to entertain his kids? He seems intent on finding the answer, and I found myself wishing an editor’s pen had thrown up a checkpoint or two of its own. The problem is that there’s not enough of a spine, either narrative (that’s fine, it’s a memoir, it doesn’t have to tell a story) or emotional (that’s less fine, obviously), for me to have a clear sense of where the cutting could or should begin. It doesn’t help that so much of the book is colored in murky, uncommunicative gray-browns or brown-grays, dulling the pop of Delisle’s attractively simple line and figurework while providing no compensatory enrichment. (There’s admittedly a blue-gray he works in during the middle of the book, around the Operation Cast Lead section, that’s perfectly nice.) If there’s such a thing as an essential Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem, I can’t see it in there.