Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle

3023792Nonfiction — print. Translated from the French by Helge Dascher. Drawn and Quarterly, 2008. Originally published 2007. 263 pgs. Library copy.

Burma, also known as Myanmar, has been ruled by a military junta since a coup in 1962 and has largely been demonized by the governments of Western countries, particularly the United States. The ruling generals use isolation as a tool of social control – censors monitor the papers and remove stories with scissors, the leader of the opposition won a Nobel Peace Prize but is kept under a decade-long house arrest, and insurgent-controlled regions are cut off from the world and the rest of the country.

Delisle traveled to the country with his wife and toddler son after his wife receives a posting from Doctors Without Borders (referred within the text by its French acronym, MSF). The organization is trying to open up clinics in the less populated, poorer regions of the country, although the government is stalling the efforts in an attempt to keep resources within their control, and Delisle spends much of the year he lived in the country in Yangon alone working on comics and caring for his young son.

As unsettling as I find Delisle’s evident animosity towards the way his child interrupts his work, something about being a father seems to made him more adventurous. Unlike the travelogues written when Delisle was single, this one is never encumbered by boredom or a refusal to overcome language barriers. He readily admits that his son, Louis, opens up opportunities he would not normally have to interact with residents of the country – people always seem to go gaga over an infant – but he seems to be more excited about the prospect of exploring the country now that he has become a father.

Instead of shutting himself off in his hotel room and trying to make bleak connections between reality and fiction, he travels to multiple attractions within the city, develops a new obsession with figuring out how to pass by Aung San Suu Kyi’s house during his daily walks with son, and is eager to visit the more rural parts of the country with his wife on an MSF-sanctioned trip. He still longs for the comforts of home and tries to devise a plan to get him and his family passes to the Australians-only club, but he seems to take a more self-deprecating view of Westerns such as himself in the country.

There are Westerns such as his wife in the country attempting to do good (i.e. bring medicine and clinics to underserved populations), but there are others willing to turn a blind eye to the poverty and the regime’s suppression in order to extract oil who live in mini-estates with guards. Yet all of them want to belong to the beautifully maintained compounds like the Australians-only club Delisle becomes obsessed with and all of them are willing to engage in the same dance with the regime in order to get what they want. This presentation brings up several contradictions and questions for the reader to ponder over.

Delisle continues to utilize black and white pencil drawings, but his drawings in this book were probably the best out of the four travelogues by him that I have read. I really felt like I was able to appreciate the beauty of the pagodas, experience the heat of the omnipresent sun, and understand the bleakness of life under such a controlling regime. On the later point, there are several amusing frames where Delisle learns about the bird flu through a rumor from an employee of the World Health Organization and then proceeds to freak out about the potential pandemic because the government strictly controls both the news and the import of Tamiflu. It was a nice blend of political commentary with the realities of everyday life.

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