Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle

It is almost certainly unfair to Guy Delisle that reviewers will compare this book with his earlier Pyongyang, for that latter graphic novel was a major achievement, and for me at least, it represented something new in the world of comics. I read it in wonder, a few years ago, amazed at how Delisle managed to tell the story of a year so smoothly, so engagingly, and so courageously. The newer book is quite different, but this should surprise nobody: we cannot expect an artist or writer to produce work that is like the first work we have encountered from their oeuvre.

The Guy Delisle of Burma Chronicles is a different man than the one with whom we wandered around Pyongyang: for one thing, he is married and spends at least some (if not all) of his time in Burma as a stay-at-home dad while his wife, Negene, works for MSF (Doctors Without Borders). Hardly surprising, given this, that his text should be episodic, a series of short episodes and vignettes with recurring themes, rather than the single unfolding narrative of life in a bizarre (and slightly horrifying) place that was Pyongyang: then again, in my (very limited) experience, infants seem to make everything become episodic for a while. This was, however, a disappointment for me, as I was hoping for a deeper critique of the situation in Burma, but it would be unfair to fault Delisle for having different goals for his text than those I hoped he had.

Likewise, his discussion of the Burmese government is quite limited. It is a comic, so I didn’t expect him to hold forth in any great detail, but the little he actually says about the subject is unusual given that the insane regime is one of the few things people in the West actually know (or think they know) about Burma. Delisle seems angry about the regime’s abuses, and he seems also to want sometimes to convey the anger of those around him… but it almost feels as if he’s pulling his punches here. Maybe he’s just more worried about repercussions in this case than he was in Pyongyang, and if that is the case, it is understandable: the stories of his exchanges with a hired servant, and with a group of cartoonists who took animation lessons from him, doubtless involve real people whom the government could track down if they wanted to badly enough.

Either way, I must confess: once the book got my attention, it was very difficult to put down. The most interesting parts were Delisle’s interactions with the local people, and with the expat crowd — ah, the familiar figures, and the very believable conversations — and the moments when he samples the local art, redrawing local cartoons in his own style. The least interesting parts, for my money, were the visual renderings of tourist trips with his wife. I think even these sections were necessary, in part to balance out the stay-at-home-dad-abroad material, but Delisle’s choice to render them as a series of smaller panels suggests he was aware of what I am about to say: in one way, they amount to slide shows of the couple’s trips, except a tiny cartoon slideshow is less interesting than a real photographic slideshow. However, I will also confess that I didn’t skip those sections. Though I wished Delilse had decided to go for the depiction of the trips in fewer images with much greater detail. But I am not a cartoonist, and it’s not up to me to tell him how to do his job.

It is up to me to tell you, however, what I think about how Delisle did his job, and I think Burma Chronicles is, while not for me as successful as Pyongyang, a very engaging morning’s read, and worth getting your hands on.

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