From Our Continental Correspondent – Guy Delisle’s Burmese Chronicles
Burma, or Myanmar as it likes to be called these days, is one of the dark spots on the world map at the moment. An important reason for this is its violent dictatorial regime running a quiet, isolationist course (except when that quiet approach is shattered by mass protests followed by vicious crackdowns propelling it briefly into the media and public’s awareness – Joe). However, the common knowledge about the country in the West is virtually nil, especially when compared to other countries in the region, like Thailand or Indonesia. Sylvester Stallone solving the country’s problems in Rambo IV by killing what seems to be every other Burmese citizen, will probably not help in remedying that problem.
French cartoonist Guy Delisle‘s newest book, Chroniques Birmanes (Delcourt, 2007), will probably not solve the Burmese peoples’ problems either, but at least he’s willing to keep an open mind, observe and simply try to understand what he sees and how it all connects together.
This book is the third one in which Delisle chronicles the periods when he lived in various countries in the Far East, after China and Korea. In ‘Shenzhen‘ (2000) and ‘Pyongyang‘ (2003) respectively (republished in English by Drawn & Quarterly as hopefully this third volume will be eventually), Delisle recounted the times when he was as a quality controller for French film companies in Chinese and Korean animation factories. This time, however, his wife, Nadège, who is an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontières, is offered a post in Myanmar, and Guy is happy to tag along, if only to look after their son, Louis.
This different motivation and raison d’être makes for a totally different story. While he was in China and Korea, most of Delisle’s time was spent working, and trying to communicate with the people he was supposed to co-ordinating. This resulted in observations and anecdotes that were at once quite personal, when he told about his colleagues, his minders and the accidental “ordinary joe”, and also quite distant, limited to wonderment and surprise.
In Burma, Delisle manages to become more familiar with daily life around him, whether it’s his betel-chewing housekeeper or the wives of diplomats and business people who meet in baby clubs and on sports grounds. When he starts giving animation classes to a few Burmese artists, he becomes much more connected to the daily life and daily worries of ordinary Burmese citizens than before. On the rare occasions that he accompanies his wife on trips to MSF outposts, this connectedness allows him to quickly place the strange things he sees along the way.
(welcome to Burma/Myanmar, a map from Guy Delisle’s Chroniques Birmanes, published Delcourt and (c) Guy Delisle)
Delisle is a masterful observer, who never judges and never seems to feel superior to those he is observing. His storytelling reminds me of luminaries like Trondheim, Porcellino or even Kochalka, but Delisle’s exotic locations help make his books stand out among the ego-documents that seem to dominate the current graphic novel scene. And he’s in good company, as recent Manga Jiman laureate Gillian Sein Ying Ha quoted him as one of her inspirations.