Burma Chronicles, creator and main protagonist Guy Delisle notices a reproduction of a few Tintin panels. "Good old Tintin! That guy is everywhere!" he says admiringly. Like his predecessor Hergé, Delisle spins tales set in far-away exotic places. But whereas the Franco-Belgian master's stories reveal the clear-cut divisions of their colonialist and Cold War era settings, Delisle lives in the murkier post-colonial, and post-9-11, present. In Shenzen and Pyongyang (which I reviewed here) he is an agent of globalization - he supervises the tedious inbetween work that virtually all major studios, still using traditional animation, nowadays dole out to inexpensive Asian labor. In Burma Chronicles he accompanies his wife Nadège, an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). While Nadège has to contend with the increasingly secretive and controlling military junta that rules Burma (or Myanmar as they prefer to call the country), Delisle works part-time on his comics while being a stay-at-home dad who takes care of the couple's infant son Louis.
As with his past works, Delisle blends political commentary with his own experiences working and living as an expat in these authoritarian states. There are strengths and limitations to this approach. Delisle isn't an investigative reporter, so his first-hand sources are mostly confined to street-level information acquired from co-workers, colleagues, friends and neighbors. But this has the advantage of making his commentary easier to absorb when the reader can observe how they affect Delisle and the ordinary people around him. During his yearlong stay in Rangoon, he accumulates a wealth a experience which he relates in vignettes composed anywhere from one page to half a dozen pages. For example, he mentions how the government literally cuts out offending material in foreign publications. He reveals that he lives near the home of celebrated opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and how she is referred to only as The Lady by the general population. He mentions seeing a Marilyn Manson t-shirt when out shopping, but that fans have to go to neighboring Thailand to buy his music recordings. He discusses the technical difficulties getting internet access when there are only two ISPs in the entire country: "...One belongs to a government minister, the other to his son.” All these anecdotes build-up to a picture of Burma as a country that despite its international isolation, its citizens are aware that they are being manipulated and have adjusted their behavior accordingly to deal with living inside a police state.* As with Pyongyang, Delisle conveys all this with his usual humorous and disaffected tone combined with an imitable drawing style which economically conveys actions, information and quick impressions to the reader.
One complaint I had with Pyongyang was that Delisle the character was never able to connect with the local population in any meaningful way. This could be explained by both the state's particularly hash form of totalitarianism and the nature of his job. But Delisle himself contributed to the problem with his own lassitude and sense of detachment. Delisle starts off being similarly ensconced within his expat bubble. He spends much of the early part of the book dealing with how his family settled into their new routine. As the book progresses, Delisle's world expands beyond his family, work colleagues, his fellow expats. He forms associations with local Burmese, particularly the community of Burmese cartoonists. He even begins to teach animation to some of them. The scope of the book also expands beyond seeing the country in purely political terms as Delisle takes a slightly bemused look at Burmese customs: from the incessant betel-chewing to the place Buddhism has in its culture. He also recounts through wordless interludes the various vacations he and his wife took during their stay. as a result, Burma Chronicles is far more rambling and episodic than Pyongyang. And some vignettes are more effective than others. While the political situation informs the entire book, it's obvious that this is primarily a memoir about Delisle's time in Burma.
This intersection between the personal and the political impacts the story in certain ways. The first is that for all the familiarity he develops with the local environment, Delisle remains a foreign visitor - namely a person from an affluent Western liberal democracy who can theoretically leave any time the situation becomes unpleasant. This is what actually happens towards the end as the junta makes the MSF mission virtually impossible to carry out.** Delisle travels to Burma secure in the knowledge that Nadège's position is just as temporary as all her previous MSF postings, and the reader naturally assumes that Delisle will come out of it more or less intact if he is to complete this book. The laid-back mood that permeates his travelogues keeps the reader at a slight distance from both the difficulties encountered within the host country, and Delisle himself.
The second is that even though Delisle gets to socialize with many Burmese in a more informal manner than with the North Koreans in Pyongyang, the book is unusually circumspect about them. He only directly names a few ordinary Burmese citizens, mainly his household staff. None of them are fleshed-out as his fellow expats. This inequality is a quite glaring omission in the book. The most generous interpretation of this is suggested by one incident: Delisle's of-the-cuff remarks to a visiting journalist come back to bite him when one of his animation students, a government employee, vanishes with no explanation. Delisle never feels like he's in danger. But he suspects that the student was punished for being associated with him. No one who makes critical remarks about the regime is ever identified within the book.
And this is where Burma Chronicles leaves the reader. It's entertaining and informative. It's not as forthright as a journalistic expose. Nor is it quite as intimate as it implies it could have been. But it's a tantalizing glimpse into a place that is little understood by many people from Delisle's background.
* On a personal note, the local conditions of Burma described in this book remind me of the Philippines under the Martial Law years, combined with the added burden of its pariah state status.
** In one of the more interesting conversations that Delisle records, an MSF employee offers several, not always flattering, explanations on why other international NGOs continue to work in Burma.