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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel / comics

Burma Chronicles

Guy Delisle

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To purchase Burma Chronicles

Title: Burma Chronicles
Author: Guy Delisle
Genre: Comics
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2008)
Length: 263 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Burma Chronicles - US
Burma Chronicles - UK
Burma Chronicles - Canada
Chroniques birmanes - Canada
Chroniques birmanes - France
Aufzeichnungen aus Birma - Deutschland
  • French title: Chroniques birmanes
  • Translated by Helge Dascher

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly entertaining but frustratingly sketchy

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Irrawady . 12/2008 Edith Mirante
The Japan Times . 9/11/2008 Jeff Kingston
The National . 7/11/2008 Joe Sacco
The New Yorker . 3/11/2008 .
The Telegraph . 4/5/2009 Clover Stroud
The Times . 6/5/2009 Neel Mukherjee

  From the Reviews:
  • "Delisle shows his skill in sharp vignettes of everyday life. His most telling insights about Burma, come in the tiniest frames. Although determinedly small in scope, the book takes on layers of themes: expat life, tourist impressions, political commentary and the role of international NGOs." - Edith Mirante, The Irrawady

  • "This witty and incisive graphic novel draws on the 14 months in 2005-06 when Guy Delisle accompanied his wife on a posting in Burma with Doctors Without Borders. Delisle, who has also published graphic novels about North Korea and China, mines the everyday life and experiences of an expatriate, often shared with his infant Louis. Even from within a relatively comfortable cocoon, Delisle helps readers understand what it means to live under an incompetent but scary dictatorship." - Jeff Kingston, The Japan Times

  • "Perhaps it is no wonder that Delisle seldom identifies the Burmese he has met or relates any details the regime might use to identify them. He has tasted firsthand the bitter reality of the countryís dictatorship. Despite its hodgepodge of charms and its general good humour, Burma Chronicles leaves the same taste in the readerís mouth." - Joe Sacco, The National

  • "Drawn with charming simplicity and brio, the book mixes traditional travelogue with glimmers of the unexpected" - The New Yorker

  • "As a counterpoint to the often inaccessible news stories about the country, this is an excellent portrait of a little-understood land, and makes for a deeply original and fascinating piece of travel writing." - Clover Stroud, The Telegraph

  • "What could have been another riveting piece of journalistic storytelling gets repeatedly short-circuited by the hypercomplaining presence of Delisle himself (.....) His clinical self-absorption works as both occluding filter and black hole so that, on one hand, nothing about Burma survives unclouded by this carping perception and, on the other, everything is sucked into the vortex of Delisleís relentless moaning." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Burma Chronicles is -- in comic-book form -- an apparently autobiographical account by comics-drawer Guy Delisle of his time in Burma (Myanmar) when his wife was stationed there working for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). Also along for the ride is Louis, their toddler-son; for the most part it is Guy who looks after the kid (until he can fob him off on the household help and nursery school).
       Rather than a real Burma-survey this is an account of ex-pat life among the NGO-crowd -- albeit in one of the more unusual corners of the world. Guy does get around Rangoon (Yangon) and Burma, but he is not the most curious or adventurous guy in the world. And while there's something to be said for avoiding the touristy approach to a country, this account might veer too far in the other direction: a visit to Bagan (Pagan) -- with its acres and acres of temples (and little else) one of the most stunning sites in the world -- is reduced to a wordless three-page spread, with the highlight of the trip apparently that he was able to fly in the cockpit on the way back to Rangoon. Similarly, when the couple find themselves with some time on their hands one suggests they could visit a pagoda, prompting the response: "Not another pagoda ?" -- a response that is understandable to anyone who has seen pagoda-overstuffed Burma but less so in a book where there hasn't been mention of (or visit to) one up to that point.
       Early on Guy introduces City Mart -- the local supermarket stocking "all basic consumables" -- and he shows the typical ex-pat fascination with all things out of place (thrilled later, for example, to find the Americans have their own mini-mart with familiar food). Here he says:

Ah ! Food aisles in foreign countries ! I've got to admit that I find them totally exotic.

They're a part of local culture that tourists miss out on completely.
       Even as that is a debatable point, Guy doesn't even bother to truly dwell on City Mart's exoticism. Yet another part of local culture that readers miss out on almost completely, too .....
       There's much whining about the heat and longing/demands for air conditioned comfort -- and Western-style amenities in general. Among Guy's great ambitions is to become a member at the fancy Australian club where ex-pats can frolic and play in comfort.
       Son Louis is cooed over by all the locals, but Guy himself is generally readily overlooked. Still, he does connect with a few Burmese, and he sets up an informal weekly animation-class, which gives him a very small bit of local insight. The authorities are naturally suspicious of contact between foreigners and locals, and some of the problems that such contact can cause locals are addressed, but otherwise Guy gets little first- (or second-) hand experience of the brutal reach of the authoritarian regime.
       There's quite a bit on the more surreal elements of the Burmese junta's rule, from the funny-money with its weird denominations (and the occasional overhaul thereof, wiping out anyone who actually bothers to hoard the stuff) to the different forms of censorship -- the stories pulled (or literally cut (yes, with knife or scissors)) from newspapers and magazines, for example. During his time there the government suddenly bans DVDs of foreign films -- and moves the capital from Rangoon to the middle of nowhere. But while Guy relates these anecdotes, he doesn't probe very deeply.
       Among the more interesting episodes are those describing the Internet-trouble Guy encounters, which also leads him to visit one of the two internet service providers in the country -- where it's clear that everything is being (poorly) filtered.
       With its many different glimpses of living in Burma, Burma Chronicles does give some impression of a fair amount of it -- but not nearly enough. Delisle's sequences present some of the episodes -- even incidental ones -- very nicely, but most of this feels like the cartoon version of the columns one finds in ex-pat magazines. Guy's puttering around Burma is amusing enough, for the most part, but too much of it is unexceptional; even that could be fine, but he leaves the unexceptional largely unexplored as well.
       Burma Chronicles is fine for what it is; it simply isn't very much.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 April 2009

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Burma Chronicles: Reviews: Guy Delisle: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle was born in 1966.

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© 2009 the complete review

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