Burma Chronicles

by on Dec.23, 2010, under Comics

Quebecois cartoonist Guy Delisle has made a bit of a specialty of travelogues from repressive Asian states. Previous books have detailed his time teaching computer animation in Pyongyang and Shenzen, China. In 2006 and 2007 his wife, an administrator for Doctors Without Borders, was posted to Burma, and the result is Burma Chronicles, published in hardcover in 2008 and recently reissued in paperback.

I’d never read his work before and didn’t know exactly what to expect when I got the book, and at first I didn’t much care for it. Unlike, for example, Joe Sacco, who approaches his subjects as a journalist, probing for their testimonies, DeLisle is passive, focused on his own life, which he describes in two- to five-page vignettes. He doesn’t interview many ordinary Burmans or try to tell their stories, and I grew annoyed at his complaints about the air conditioning failing when the power went out, or his obsession with his toddler son Louis.

He tells about the peculiarities of Burma with a kind of bemusement: The houses of VIPs are heavily guarded even though crime is low because the generals who run Burma are all paranoid about being assassinated by their peers. On Armed Forces Day, the guards on the parade route each has to walk back and forth over their assigned stretches of 200 yards, checking for minds by hand. Censors remove whole articles from magazines with scissors, and the official newspaper is full of absurd propaganda. The teenage children of VIPs show their rebelliousness with Che Guevara and swastika t-shirts only VIPs can afford.

But then, about two-thirds of the way through, there’s an episode that made me understand much better what DeLisle was up against. The whole time he’s in Rangoon he’s teach an animation class. An interview with him is published in France, in which he’s critical of the Burmese regime. He shows the article to the students and they become very fearful: one of them works for the government, and as another student explains, “He could lose his car, his apartment… He could even face 10 years in jail,” simply for being associated with DeLisle. DeLisle desperately collects all the copies of the newspaper interview he’s given out and burns them, but as the director of a French NGO explains to him, “There are staff at the Burmese Embassy in France who read and report on everything that gets published.” A Red Cross representative says the best they can do is try to learn what prison he’s sent to, so that his family can be informed. The next week there’s one fewer student in DeLisle’s class.

He’s in an impossible spot as a writer, in other words. Even if he could find people willing to give testimony about the atrocities of the Burmese government, he’d be putting them in danger by writing about them. And he does tell us plenty about the inefficiency and corruption of the junta. He writes about the rampant heroin addiction they foster in the country’s hinterlands and the rapid spread of AIDS as a result, and about the government’s persecution of certain ethnic minorities.

I also came to appreciate the snatches of Burmese everyday culture, like the water festival where everyone soaks everyone else they pass in the street, or the time his servant gets mad at him for giving food to a monk begging after noon. (Monks are only supposed to eat before noon, and giving to a misbehaving monk is bad luck.)

I think, though, that the memoir form gives DeLisle license to include too many passages that seem unnecessary. There’s a long section near the end covering his three days on a meditation retreat in a Buddhist temple. In itself it’s a terrific account of the effects of prolonged meditative focus, a subject I haven’t seen covered in comics before. But it’s about him, not about Burma. He doesn’t really attempt to explain how, for example, a culture so dominated by the kind of Buddhism he experiences could be the home of such a vicious dictatorship. Or, conversely, how the country’s monks could become the font of strength for the peaceful uprising that began not long after he left Burma and before the book’s initial publication.

Memoir in this case falls at a curious crossroads of arrogance and humility. On the one hand it could be considered arrogant for DeLisle to declare that he, the Western visitor, has the right to speak truths about a country he’s only been in a relatively short time. Perhaps it’s more humble for him to tell his own story. His perspective on Burma. But on the other, doing so elevates him as a subject above the country. Is it really more humble to give the reader pages on your toddler son’s playtime when the reader obviously cares about Burma itself far more?

I’m probably making more of this than I should. On the whole I did like Burma Chronicles, and appreciated the glimpse it gave me into a society that’s usually hidden.

Preview below the fold.


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