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On a list of suggested reading for an upcoming trip to Myanmar/Burma, the only entry based on recent experience there was Burma Chronicles (2010) by Guy Delisle, a Québecois married to a woman who works for Medecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). He had earlier accompanied her to North Korea and produced a graphic novel Pyongyang and Shenzen about his experiences in rural China.
The book is labeled a “graphic novel,” a genre or format that I sometimes find rewarding (Vietnamerica, for instance; Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical accounts). I would not classify Burma Chronicles as a “novel.” Although it covers a span of time, there is nothing in the way of development or an arc of increased knowledge about the culture of Burmese (either the military oligarchy that has pauperized what was once the richest country in Asia nor the civilians, Burmen or other).
There are no Burmese individual characters, though there is an undifferentiated mass of students who want to learn about animation from Delisle and never do any of their “homework.” That failure probably derives from the very unreliable electricity supply, but comes across as fecklessness.
Delisle gets in swipes at censorship and an extremely secretive and oppressive regime, which moved the capital into the interior (with less notice and planning than Brasilia, when it became Brazil’s new cpital) and kept the democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest and allowed no visitors throughout Delisle’s time in Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
The book is mostly about Delisle’s irritations with the heat, the rain, unreliable electricity, and arbitrary officials making getting out of Yangon very difficult (not that Delisle learns anything when he does get out). The book is mostly about Delisle, in whom I have no interest, with very little about Burma or Burmese (in whom I am interested). I already know the unpleasantness of heat and arbitary governments as both affect North American visitors (and much more about the corruption and viciousness of the regime from reading From the Land of the Green Ghosts and The Iron Road). and watching Burma VJ).
As for the graphics, I’d say that they strike me as “amateurish,” but that would probably be an insult to amateurs. The figures, the most frequent of which are Delisle and his infant son (who is an object of unending fascination for the Burmese who see him, and invariably use female pronouns for him) are crudely drawn. I’ll readily concede that the occasional larger panel of scenery (urban or rural) is less crudely drawn.
I could summarize the story as follows: I came to Burma with my young son, who got cooed at a lot. I was hot and wet and from the safety afforded by a Canadian passport, deplored the government that censored English-language magazines ("Oh, right! I almost forgot! We're under dictatorship here!") and blocked Internet usage (and at one point removed DVDs of all foreign-made movies, all of which were pirated, though that was not the reason for banning them). My wife’s employers decided to pull out of the country, and off we went.
The book is “whimsical” alright, but the whimsies are those of an Ugly North American (in this instance Canadian) risking nothing but tropical diseases in lampooning an especially brutal dictatorship.
Though I don’t think the book is a “winner,” it does fit both Elvisdo’s July writeoffs: Canadian and funny page.
©2012, Stephen O. Murray
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