Page 20 Book Reviews Non-Fiction March 2009

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Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle, a graphic travelog, Drawn & Quarterly, hardcover, 263 pages, $19.95, ISBN 978-1897299-50-0

Burma Chronicles - book cover

Departure for Burma

Delisle takes out baby Louis and finds out he doesn't exist

Rangoon's youth seek ways to rebel in a T-shirt shop

Backyard Ferris Wheel

By Alidë Kohlhaas

Guy Delisle draws travelogs. He is a Canadian, who is mainly based in France, but publishes his graphic travel stories through the aptly named Montreal publisher, Drawn & Quarterly. His latest work I have come across is his 2008 Burma Chronicles, an illustrated report that dwells on his experiences in Burma, or Myanmar as its current rulers like to call the country. One of the most repressive places in the world, it is ruled by a right-wing military junta that keeps the population under very tight control.

Delisle is married to an administrator for Medécines sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) usually just called MSF, an organization that attempts to bring medical help to refugee camps in underdeveloped countries, or those in war-torn places. In the case of Burma, it tried to help the sick in those areas that the junta most suppresses because of political opposition.

Because of his wife's latest assignment, it meant the move of Delisle's family to Rangoon, Burma's capital where they settled first into an MSF guest house with their small son Louis, and then into their own home after some considerable search. In Delisle's case he has to cope with role-reversal. He is the stay-at-home dad while his wife visits clinics in and around Rangoon, and eventually even in a danger zone, though not the one MSF had wanted to aid.

What Delisle manages to do well is capture the day-to-day mundane existence in a city ruled by a paranoid dictatorship. He has good relationships with the locals once they get used to him, although he finds that what his neighbors really respond to is his son, not the father. The Burmese love children and so show their otherwise reserved nature in a way they would not to a foreign adult.

Of course, there are expat communities with some associations to help the spouses of personnel working for various NGOs to cope with conditions in Rangoon. But, as this male spouse soon discovers, they are aimed at the wives and their children, who share daily problems of how to cope. Delisle joins in, but it isn't easy for him to always fit in. Besides, he is a working dad, as well because he has publishing deadlines to meet, not always easy in a country where internet access is restricted, nor is there a steady supply of power to run air-conditioning or anything else.

What I found in this chronicle is that I discovered many similarities with my own stay in China. For one, there are the dangers that locals face who associate too openly with foreigners. Delisle discovers that the classes in animation he started at the behest of a local graphic artist have put one member of the group, a government employee, in danger because an article critical about Burma published in France carried Delisle's photo. Suddenly, his group misses one member. Just what happened to his former student is not revealed, which is one of the faults of this book. Sometimes stories begin, but have no ending. The reason for this may well be that to search out the answers may have led to Delisle's deportation. One does not mess with repressive juntas, or any other kind of repressive regime.

Delisle has a simple, lean style of drawing his episodical tale of life in Burma. He infuses it with gentle humor, careful, it seems, not to damage those with whom he came in contact. Yet, he makes his point, at least to this reviewer, who exercised a similar restrained about China. He manages to open the door just a little to those who have no idea what Myanmar is all about, what it means living in this once beautiful country now impoverished through the current regime that is busy fattening itself while the people go without.

While one may hunger for more direct reporting, more detailed stories, Delisle tells enough to show how Chinese-run jade mines pay their workers with heroin, and how prostitution is rampant in this devoutly Buddhist country. The book, sadly, came out before the Buddhist uprising last year, so we now have to wait for someone else to tell us that tale.

As for MSF, it finally pulled out of Burma because after two years there, it found that it had been placed in an untenable position. Instead of getting to the areas that MSF should serve, namely the Karen region near the Thai border, it was busy doing the Burmese government's job in clinics far away from the trouble areas. So, Delisle and his family along with other MSF staff finally leave the country, though he does not depict that event. Instead, he ends his tale with a Ferris wheel that appeared in his neighborhood. It's a fitting ending, for he lets humor express the contradictions of this country, where Buddhist monks come around Christmas time to sing carols, where doorbells to apartments hang on long strings on the outside of building, where Karen Carpenter songs are played in supermarkets, and where local news consists mostly of long lists of what officials appeared where and when, to mention just a few stories.

Note: Guy Delisle now has a blog. Click here for access

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