Burma, Redrawn

Travel Blog  •  Julia Ross  •  01.29.09 | 9:39 AM ET

Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle

I wonder if Burma’s generals are kicking themselves for allowing an unassuming Canadian cartoonist to live within their borders for 14 months. They should be. Guy Delisle’s terrific graphic memoir, Burma Chronicles, portrays the surrealism of life under the junta in a way few Western journalists have been able to conjure.

In his third illustrated travelogue, Delisle, who traveled to Burma in 2005 to accompany his aid worker wife, has fun at his own expense, drawing himself as a wide-eyed foreigner and stay-at-home dad who observes the quirks of Rangoon from behind a baby stroller. He opens a Time magazine to find articles mysteriously cut out by censors; struggles to make change in bills issued in denominations of 15, 45 and 90; and watches bemusedly as the government packs up and moves, virtually overnight, to a new capital city. 

There’s a lot here for a politically inclined animator to grab hold of. Foreign films are banned on the premise they cause “sexual aggression,” and restrictions on nongovernmental organizations tighten so much that many—including Medecins Sans Frontieres, for whom Delisle’s wife works—decide to abandon the country altogether.

But Delisle is also pitch-perfect on the befuddlement and cultural isolation that suffuse the expat experience. Sequences showing the unexpected appearance of a giant frog in the living room, or the narrator blindsided by fire hoses during Burma’s water festival, are hilarious. Unfortunately, I didn’t gain much understanding of the Burmese characters who appear in the story—other than they live in fear—but I did come away with new appreciation for the country’s physical beauty, nicely illustrated when Delisle and his wife travel to the interior. 

“Burma Chronicles” is a fresh look at a country veiled in darkness, exposing its absurdities with deceptively simple brushstrokes. Now I’m eager to track down Delisle’s two previous books, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, and Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China, to see if he skewered those regimes with equal glee.

Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

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