Sunday, October 26, 2008

Burma Chronicles

by Guy Delisle
(translated by Helge Dascher)

I told you I'd get to it in the end...

Burma Chronicles is the third travel book by French Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle, following his earlier accounts of Pyongyang and Shenzhen. Unlike many travel writers, Delisle doesn't visit these places simply in order to write about them; rather, they're memoirs of trips that he took for other reasons. With Pyongyang and Shenzhen, he was supervising animation studios. This time, he's accompanying his wife (who works for Medecins Sans Frontieres) and their baby son on a year-long posting to Myanmar. On the fringe of the medical community, Delisle gets on with his cartooning, teaches a few animation courses for the locals, and generally wander about a bit.

As before, there's no attempt to impose a story. The book is a collection of vignettes. Some are straightforward accounts of the country itself, some are pieces of culture shock, some are about his experiences in the expat community of westerners, and it all comes together to build up an impression of his experience of the country.

Burma may be run by a military dictatorship, but it's an easier place to write about than Pyongyang. Delisle's book about the North Korean capital was mainly an account of staying in deluded "luxury" hotels, surrounded by Stepford party loyalists. Burma is a different matter; the locals seem much more willing to speak freely about the place, and the worst of the government's excesses are taking place out in the countryside.

On a day to day level, the state is more of a demented inconvenience. It relocates entire ministries to previously unknown cities without notice, and produces currency in absurdly cumbersome denominations because 50 and 100 are unlucky numbers, but 45 and 90 are propitious.

Stories like this are funny, but they're also a disturbing illustration of what happens when a country ends up run by lunatics. Instead of taking the obvious route of writing about atrocities that he didn't actually see, Delisle focuses on the way the dictatorship is actually experienced by the beleaguered citizens: comically inept and tacitly threatening at the same time, blithely implementing the most inane, irrational schemes imaginable, just because they can.

Delisle's talent lies in breaking down these alien societies into small, human moments, which he conveys with incredible economy and skill. There's a wealth of detail in his deceptively simple art, and a great command of the medium. A couple of dialogue free sequences, recounting trips to outlying towns in a series of 15-panel grids, particularly repay close reading.

In its way, Delisle's gently comedic approach, with an understated awareness of the issues always hovering in the shadows, is far more effective than a direct attack could ever be. He shows Rangoon the way it is - and the way it is speaks for itself.

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