Guy Delisle, writer/artist
Drawn & Quarterly, 2008
272 pages, hardcover
Early on, I thought that this was going to be my least favorite of Delisle’s three tyranny travelogues. This time out, instead of Delisle being sent to China or North Korea due to his job as an animator, it’s his wife, a member of Doctors Without Borders, whose career has brought Delisle to Burma (technically Myanmar, but that’s essentially the “slave name” assigned it by the ruling military junta, so many countries don’t use it). This means that the daily grind of work that formed the spine of Delisle’s activities in Pyongyang and Shenzhen gets replaced with laps around a pool, cute business with his baby Louis, and a generally more tourist/holiday vibe. The more it starts to feel like a James Kochalka sketchbook diary the more you feel the absence of that structure. (The inclusion, for the first time, of slapsticky wordless vignettes doesn’t help either.)
But in a way, this is fitting, because Burma as a nation seems to be missing the usual structure as well. As seen through the glimpses Delisle is afforded, China is a country that’s genuinely interested in the economic products of the modern professional, though not the cultural and political ones, and is milking them for all they’re worth. North Korea is too far gone to make a go of that, but to flatter itself and properly impress its subjects, the regime makes a show of being modern; it can’t afford not to lie about it. Now, perhaps it’s just Delisle’s lack of gainful employment that masks bustling business elsewhere in the city of Rangoon, but Burma as a government seems perfectly content with letting the people with whom Westerners come in contact live in relative, non-Westernized simplicity, while away from Western eyes–in entire zones of the country where foreigners are not permitted–the real economic and military depredations take place. Indeed, shielding their doings from outsiders appears to be their number-one concern.
This picture begins to emerge about a quarter of the way through the book and slowly picks up steam because, for the first time, one of Delisle’s travel memoirs has a sort of real-life “plot”: The death by a thousand cuts to which the junta is subjecting Western charities and NGOs, preventing them from reaching the people who need them the most (persecuted minorities) and slowly forcing them to shut themselves down lest they end up complicit in the government’s discrimination. Slowly the junta’s efforts at reality control become harder to miss–culminating most absurdly in the wholesale relocation of the capital from Rangoon to a prefab city in the middle of nowhere whose name can’t even be released to the public for security reasons.
Once again Delisle is a jolly, slightly frantic fish out of water, but this time the juxtaposition between him and his host nation is more poignant than ever. Two stories stick out: A meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery, the simplicity of which seems to almost haunt Delisle after the information overload of all his other journeys throughout the country; and a heartbreaking incident in which Delisle beamingly presents a French newspaper article about his sojourn in Burma to the amateur animators he’s been teaching as a hobby, only to discover that because of its critical tone toward the junta, one of his students is soon “disappeared.” In both of these very different cases Delisle is left wondering how life could be lived that way, and so are we.