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BOOK REVIEW: The Burma Chronicles

Lost in Translation: Guy Delisle's new graphic memoir recalls heat and oppression in Rangoon



The Burma Chronicles [Buy Now]
By Guy Delisle
Drawn & Quarterly, 272 pages, $20

A few weeks ago, I read a fascinating article in The New Yorker by George Packer (The Assassins' Gate), in which he revealed the near-incomprehensible government corruption that plagues the country of Burma (or Myanmar, as it's called by the United Nations since the "official" name change in 1989).

"When I asked a Burmese journalist to describe the regime's philosophy," Packer writes, "he suggested the word sit-padaytharit, or 'military feudalism.' The generals regard the population as unruly children incapable of taking responsibility for themselves; they believe that they alone can prevent Burma from dissolving."

The Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle's latest work of graphic memoir/reportage, doesn't necessarily paint a rosier picture, but it does offer punctuated moments of hope and a neat delineation of life in the third-world country.

In 2005-2006, Delisle moved to the oppressed nation with his wife, an administrator for Doctors Without Borders. As she traveled to various rural outposts, the author stayed home with their toddler, Louis, chronicling life in Rangoon.

Like he did in Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China, Delisle eagerly explored his surroundings, attempting to experience as much native culture and tradition as possible. He learned early on that the censorship and secrecy of the military regime would make things exceedingly difficult.

"In Myanmar, all magazines go through the censorship bureau," he writes. "Articles that are unflattering to the country are systematically removed."

Left with only mangled magazines and very few books, Delisle ventured into the neighborhood, taking Louis to play groups and mingling with locals to grasp the local customs.

One of Burma's oldest traditions is Buddhism. As Delisle casually explains many of its central tenets — including alms-giving, karma, and merits — he wryly notes the sanctimonious practice of many of the country's leaders.

"Merits can be obtained in any number of ways: by making temple offerings, helping to maintain a pagoda or, better yet, building one. As did Win, the first in a long line of generals who have ruled the country with an iron fist since 1962. After spending one whole lifetime oppressing a nation, he wanted to avoid coming back as a rat or a frog in the next."

I found these moments of understated humor to be welcome respites from Delisle's constant struggles with the suffocating heat, rampant power outages, health threats, unreliable transportation, and confounding government bureaucracy.

It was his new role as father, though, that seemed to pose the biggest challenge.

"Louis' latest game involves letting small objects fall into hard-to-reach places. And then crying for them," he writes. "And the harder it is for me to get at the object, the more he laughs."

Louis is probably the most charming character in the narrative — his bulbous head and clueless innocence remind me of Ike, Kyle's little brother on South Park — and he proves especially useful to the author when they are invited to join the Australian club, which features a pool and other rare amenities.

Delisle's drawings are rendered in clean, spare lines, and the wordless vignettes are well-placed throughout the story. The material is often depressing — aside from the repressive regime, Burma is also plagued with widespread prostitution and heroin abuse — but the author's tangential, Everyman approach deflects some of the impact of the harsh reality.

The author also takes a few appropriate shots at failed American foreign policy in Burma.

"There's still an embassy, but no ambassador," he writes. "The U.S. is now represented by an attaché. The building, situated downtown, has turned into a bunker since September 11. The street is blocked to traffic and cameras are prohibited.

"Strangely enough, they've begun building a new embassy on the south side of the lake. And not a little one — we're talking $50 million. It's one of the mysteries of American diplomacy: Why build a gigantic embassy in a country you don't recognize and that you've put under embargo?"

In the end, Delisle finds plenty of common humanity, and his three-day stint in a Buddhist monastery is an appropriately humbling experience.

"After 42 hours of meditation in three days, I feel more peaceful than ever before, but also very alert," he writes. "How long can this state of grace last? It could be a hard landing."

The Burmese will continue to face countless hard landings in the years to come. Hopefully, Burma Chronicles will open a few eyes to a government's reprehensible behavior.

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