Tag: Guy DeLisle
The last book of Guy Delisle’s I reviewed was about his time in Burma, and when I wrote about it I had mixed feelings about his customary form, which is to string together four- to eight-page travel vignettes almost exclusively focused on his day-to-day experiences, using what he sees or hears as an opening to discuss some broader phenomenon about the culture he’s visiting. His stance is always that of a sincerely interested, naive tourist rather than a journalist, and I felt that it simultaneously showed too much humility (in that he declined to speak for Burma) and not enough (in that he also gave space to things like his problems with air conditioning).
On the whole, though, I liked Burma Chronicles. I just wanted even more about the country. It was a closed, mysterious society and I was curious.
I came to his new book Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City with exactly the opposite predisposition. Few countries on earth receive as much consistent media attention as Israel, and its history and conflicts have already been the subject of countless books, including graphic works by some of my favorite (Joe Sacco) and least favorite (Sarah Glidden) comic book authors. I had no curiosity left about it.
As it turns out, that makes it the perfect subject for Delisle’s interested tourist routine, in part because he is a keen observer of details it turned out I had never seen before. Rather than dramatize big injustices, like Sacco, or grapple with the whole arc of modern Israeli history, like Glidden, he focuses on small ironies and oddities.
When he visits Hebron, for example, he does discuss the ongoing conflict between settlers and Palestinian residents, but does so by remarking that there are certain streets Palestinians cannot use, and that the one they can use that runs next to settlers’ homes has been roofed with netting to catch the garbage settlers try to throw down from their windows. He visits a settlement near where he’s living in East Jerusalem and notes that many Arab Christians are living there, attracted by the cheap rent. “It’s like we’re resettling the settlements!” laughs his host.
Overall, then, he presents a picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of its effect on daily life, both in Israel and in the West Bank, which turns out to be fascinating and darkly funny. (He is never able to get permission to visit Gaza, and he guesses that the Israeli official who denies that permission does so because he thinks Delisle is Sacco.)
Three elements stuck out for me in particular.
First, his year in Israel overlapped with Operation Cast Lead, and he does an incredible job of describing the surreality of going about his daily routine while a war takes place just a short drive away. One striking sequence has him and a friend at the beach, watching fighter jets go past en route to Gaza.
Second, the wall encircling Palestinians in the West Bank. He talks about it only occasionally, but is always trying to sketch it, and it shows up constantly in his descriptions of other events. It hangs over everything else silently, just as he must have experienced it.
Third, Delisle is fair-minded, and makes a point to present what he sees as the best aspects of Israeli society. Specifically he points out that the Israelis can be more critical of their government or of Israeli extremists than any American media outlet would ever dare to be.
On December 4, settlers occupying a building in central Hebron were evacuated by the Israeli army. The settlers put up a fierce fight, and six soldiers were injured during the operation. Other settlers responded with violent attacks on Arab families, all under the eyes of journalists. The story made the front page of the papers. The vast majority of Israelis vigorously disapprove of the extreme behavior of the Hebron settlers. In a statement following these incidents, Ehud Olmert spoke of “pogroms” perpetrated by Jews against Arabs. Harsh words, deliberately used by the prime minister to make an impression.
Elsewhere you might think twice before accusing Jews of carrying out pogroms… In Israel, it’s not an issue.
Delisle is interested in Israel in all its diversity. He visits the Samaritans, the Armenian Church, a Bedouin village, the Dome of the Rock. He tours an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. He even goes on a propaganda bus tour organized by a pro-settler group. In the end it is clear where his sympathies lie, and above all who he sees as villains. But the personal travelogue format allows him to be fair about all he does experience without having to throw in a lot of caveats about all he doesn’t, and I felt like he showed me a great many new things about a subject I’d thought I was sick of.
PDF preview here.
In the decade and a half or so since Joe Sacco invented long-form “graphic journalism,” not many authors have tried to do anything like it. Guy Delisle, to a certain extent David Axe, Dan Archer. But more and more seem to be picking it up, and in Oil and Water journalist Steve Duin and artist Shannon Wheeler show why it has such great power when done right.
Like Sacco, Duin and Wheeler take us inside a tragedy that’s already been covered extensively by traditional news outlets: last year’s terrible BP oil spill. And like him they do it by focusing on individual stories, giving humanity and voice to people who we’ve otherwise met only in three-second soundbites at best, giving local color to the news’s dispassionate accounts.
Comics are an especially good medium for this, I think. Text alone doesn’t give the same effect of a person’s face speaking directly to you, and filmed documentaries must either hope their subjects are eloquent and charismatic or else edit their interviews extensively. Graphic journalists can clean up what people say and make them even more magnetic than they are in real life.
The frame for the reporting here is a trip to the Gulf taken by a group of about a dozen Oregonian environmentalists a few months after the spill. They are there to “bear witness,” they say, and it’s unclear what else they’re doing. There’s no attempt in the book to find a point-of-view character or to investigate very deeply what any of the visitors think about what they see; they are merely recording eyes who occasionally voice opinions. I don’t know if that will work for every future tragedy or even for every reader of this book, but it worked just fine for me. The book as a whole has a clear, angry point of view and it’s one I share. I’m a birdwatcher. The mass deaths of birds they describe upset me a lot. I don’t need that dressed up with characterization.
The only thing I wish were different is the art. Wheeler has opted for an almost impressionistic style in black and white, basic line figures shaded with ink brushwork. In a few panels this is quite effective, notably in some overhead landscape views of the Gulf or of towns. Much of the time, though, I found myself wishing for more detail. Since the event itself takes center stage, I wanted to experience it more fully, to see real individuality in the people who spoke and particularity in the lands around them. I wanted drawings that were more realist, in other words.
Even so, Oil and Water is a real achievement, both as a political statement and as a marker in the development of its subgenre.
PDF preview here.
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.