Burma Chronicles, by Guy DeLisle. Published September 2008 by Drawn & Quarterly. Nonfiction. Memoir. Graphica, Translation.
Burma Chronicles is an autobiographical account of the time French-Canadian cartoonist Guy DeLisle spent in that country in 2005 with his wife, an administrator in Medecins sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders). Previously, DeLisle published two graphic novels documenting his travels in Asia, Shenzhen (2000) and Pyongyang (2003).
This book is a somewhat lengthy collection of cartoons spanning their year in Burma, from the couple's departure to the isolated Asian country, till their departure from it.
In between, DeLisle covers a lot of ground. He talks about day to day life- shopping, taking care of his infant son while pursuing his comics career while his wife works- in country where censors cut articles out of newspapers before the public can read them and you can go to jail just for knowing the wrong people. Although DeLisle has the opportunity to witness many of the peculiarities of life in Burma, including the hard political and social realities he comes up against at every turn, I got the feeling that he only ever really skimmed the surface of Burmese life. As a foreigner, and an unemployed one at that, he saw a lot, certainly, but his life also came across to me as privileged and somewhat sheltered. Even the cover drawing- DeLisle walking by with his baby while Burmese people interact in the background- speaks to his status as an outsider. To his credit, he seems to be aware of his position and plays with it in self-deprecating, humorous ways.
For the most part, DeLisle's observations are succinct but emotionally neutral, almost reporterly in their preference of fact over emotion. Much of what he sees- and he witnesses tragedies and travesties and injustices- seems to leave him untouched. Strong emotions are centered around issues of creature comforts, like the misery of a long hot bus ride or the relief of a cool shower. The style of the artwork echoes this sense of detachment. Presented as line drawings in washed out black and white, his characters are simple and iconic. He is a distinct character himself, but his face is more a series of lines than a distinctly human visage. His Burmese characters are also more collections of features than individuals. DeLisle's background drawings are sometimes quite detailed and lovely, but the lack of color prevents the reader from experiencing the landscape as exotic or glamorous, and instead focuses the attention on the nitty-gritty of the Burmese people's difficult, impoverished lives. I wonder if this choice doesn't represent his politics showing through just a little. His writing is simple, clear and strong, but he tells stories just as well through silent panels too.
Burma Chronicles would be of interest in particular to people with an interest in southeast Asia, a part of the world that receives little attention in American popular culture. DeLisle includes quite a bit of material on political life in Burma/Myanmar insofar as its effect on everyday people- everything from government censorship to tacit complicity in growing heroin addiction and HIV epidemics. It's actually quite horrifying and DeLisle's matter-of-fact tone brings the horror home in a understated fashion. I would place DeLisle's work here alongside that of Joe Sacco and other journalistic comics artists- although it has its funny moments, Burma Chronicles is I think intended to be on the serious side. It's a good read if you're up to it.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.