Burma’s Mute Despair


The Literary Review of Canada gave me room to do a substantial review of Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles. Click the link in the middle of the last sentence to read the review, the opening of which is excerpted below:


Many travellers record their experiences with a camera. Guy Delisle relies on an older method of preserving memories. Using the digits of his hand rather than digital handheld devices, the artist keeps sketchbooks where he draws the sights he encounters in other lands. He then reworks these impressions into comic strip travelogues, currently available in three volumes each named after a foreign locale.

A Quebec-born cartoonist and animator now based in France, Delisle leads a peripatetic existence for reasons of career and family. He worked for several years as a supervisor of animation with studios based in Asia. Because animation is a labour-intensive art form requiring thousands of nearly identical drawings to create even the tiniest illusion of motion, many studios outsource the drudge work to countries where artists can be paid in cents instead of dollars. This quest for cheap labour took Delisle to Shenzhen in China and to the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. More recently, Delisle has journeyed to other out-of-the way places because his wife, Nadège, works as an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontières.

In 2005, Nadège’s job took the couple to Burma, where they lived for roughly a year. While Nadège contended with the increasing rigidity of the Burmese regime, bent on preventing MSF from gaining access to politically restive areas of the country, her husband looked after their infant son, Louis. Aside from being a stay-at-home dad, Delisle did some children’s book illustrations and took a very sporadic part-time job giving lessons in cartooning. But, in general, the artist had a lot of free time to look around Burma and to fill up his sketchbook with local impressions.

3 thoughts on “Burma’s Mute Despair

  1. Thanks for this review — you’ve motivated me to seek out Delisle’s work again. I hope you’re right when you write:

    “…his Burmese, like his Chinese and Koreans, are accorded the dignity of close attention. You never feel as you read his books that he is treating his characters as anthropological specimens or exotic curiosities. Rather, he is interested in the people he encounters as individuals embedded within their own culture and place.”

    I do not think this was the case with his previous books, especially Pyongyang. The fact the he treated North Koreans exactly as anthropological specimens, pointing his finger at their weirdness and the craziness of their society, was what turned me off his work initially.

    Anyway, I think I shall pick up Burma Chronicles now…

  2. I tend to agree with Matthias about the way he looked at the peoples of North Korea in particular, but to a certain degree this had a lot to do with how willing the natives were willing to engage a foreigner (and potential spy). One thing I noted in my review was the way his infant son was a sort of passport into this new country for him in terms of personal interactions.

    I really liked the points Jeet made about how Delisle reflected the despair of the Burmese through his actual storytelling.

    Here’s my review of BURMA CHRONICLES, which I tackle from a slightly different point of view:


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