Review: Guy Delisle – Burma Chronicles (2007)

8/10

It’s comic artist Guy Delisle again and he is on another adventure. After Shenzhen and Pyongyang, where he was sent out to supervise outsourced work for an animation studio, he now accompanies his wife to Myanmar. You see, he married someone who works for Doctors Without Borders and now joins her as she is sent out for months at the time to one country or another, and they have a little baby boy too that he is taking care of while his wife is off in the countryside working. So now he is in Yangon, Myanmar, with a toddler in some expat house, observing the Burmese culture around him. What a life this guy has.

The wife and toddler add a whole new dimension to Delisle’s travel writing that wasn’t there in his journeys as a single guy. Through the work of his wife, he can now hang out at Doctors Without Borders meetings and UN cocktail parties, even though as an artist he doesn’t have a clue about anything, and his toddler Louis draws all the local Burmese to him to coo over his son. He still has to work and so has to hire a local nanny. They live in an expat house only a few streets away from where Aung San Suu Kyi was being kept under house arrest for almost 15 years. This graphic novel is almost twice as long as Delisle’s previous novel Pyongyang, and it is filled with little details about life in Myanmar, about the people, the dictatorship, and of course every little daily thing that is odd in Delisle’s eyes.

Not every dictatorship is the same, but in some ways they are. Delisle can now compare Myanmar with his experiences in North Korea, and Myanmar doesn’t have this excessive indoctrination that North Korea has. Delisle isn’t dragged along on tours to propaganda museums that show the depravity of the US. Not every Burmese has to pretend so very hard to worship the No 1 General, and Delisle could still buy Thai bootlegged video games and hard rock t-shirts. Still, it was a hopeless situation in 2007 and even more so now. There is no freedom of movement and a neurotic control of information. Dictatorships make for frightened, insecure governments.

Delisle kept developing as a comic artist. He plays around now with style, and the jokes work better. His previous novels made me smirk but now I laughed out loud many times. The story is cut up in short chapters, and some chapters forgo the text in favour of many small panels to strengthen the visual comedy. Jokes are better set up and explained, and the lines and colouring are clearer. Overall, a clear line of improvement is visible over his work.

Most of the novel is light in tone, making little jokes about the cultural differences between writer and the Burmese people. But we end with some really hard-hitting chapters when he takes a journey to the north, to where the Kachin people live and how they are used as labour force in Chinese controlled mines and how they receive their payments in heroin shots. The amount of suffering from drug addiction and HIV is unbelievable. In the end, the Myanmar junta made it too hard for the Doctors Without Borders groups to stay, and many left the country. Overall, the novel makes quite an impact.

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6 Responses to Review: Guy Delisle – Burma Chronicles (2007)

  1. Bookstooge says:

    This series of releases really seems to be working for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wakizashi33 says:

    Delisle’s “Pyongyang” that you recommended in an earlier review is excellent, so thanks for that. Funny, eye-opening, unbelievable and verging on terrifying all at the same time.

    Liked by 1 person

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