:: Article

Burmese Days

By Max Dunbar.


And life took root, settled in, slipped into a routine, amid the backdrops and characters of a dream.

– Joseph Kessel, Mogok, The Valley of Rubies, quoted in Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle

To my mind one of the best travelogues is Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang. Armed with a smuggled radio and a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four he lived and worked for two months in North Korea: ‘the land of no smiles’. The resulting graphic novel – I’m sure Delisle would prefer the term ‘comic book’ – captured Pyongyang as a city of annihilating darkness and emptiness, like the mental landscape of a psychopath. Yet it was not entirely a work of despair: Delisle’s sense of humour and ability to capture the absurdity as well as the horror of totalitarianism saw to that.

Although it too takes place under dictatorship, Burma Chronicles is a much lighter affair. Delisle has his family with him – his wife works for Medicin Sans Frontiers and we get the impression Delisle is along for the ride. Many scenes feature the cartoonist wandering around with his baby son, doing little more than observation. He is a magpie for those little details that tell you that you’re far from home: beteljuice stains on the unlit stairs, a week-long search for Chinese ink, erratic stock levels in the city supermarket. He is particularly fascinated with machinery, noting in one panel an antique morse tapper he has glimpsed on the desk of a security guard. Most travel writing is incredibly dull. Delisle makes the dullness interesting. He has an uncrushable sense of fun and finds deadpan humour in the most unpromising material. He sees the world in a grain of sand.

Another contrast to Pyongyang is the behaviour of the locals. The most subversive statement Delisle hears in eight weeks of North Korea is: ‘I don’t like movies made here. They’re boring’ from a fellow guest in his Pyongyang hotel. Most of the time they’re too terrified: Delisle’s forced to wonder if ‘they really believe the bullshit that’s being forced down their throats’. Yet Burmese friends and strangers openly mock and criticise the regime (a elderly, bedbound woman declares: ‘Sorry to be receiving you in such a run-down country’) and trade gossip about internecine power plays. Delisle laughs at a rumour that the junta are planning to move the capital – until it happens.

Oppression intrudes in petty, sometimes comical ways. An email takes a week to arrive. There are old copies of Time with articles cut out, speechbubbles carefully snipped away – by the time of Delisle’s visit the regime is using desktop publishing technology to remove outside contamination. And then something happens to remind you that despite the sunshine, expat culture and daycare centres this is still a cage. A photograph of Delisle accompanies an article critical of the regime. One of Delisle’s animation students tells him that ‘just being associated with you is dangerous.’ The next week… there is one less student in the animation class.

There’s some debate on the role of NGOs and corporations within Burma – Delisle argues that Western conglomerates should be allowed to trade there, because if Total pull out then its place will be filled by a company from the China dictatorship, which won’t necessarily continue the social provision that Western corporate investment has set up. The country has a huge AIDS problem: the cartoonist is commissioned to illustrate an NGO educational children’s book featuring ‘a fun way to remind them to take their medication twice a day’. Delisle has lots of good questions but no easy solutions. He concentrates on the life of the nation at street level.

Delisle’s house in Burma is very close to that of Aung San Suu Kyi: the locals just call her ‘The Lady’ (Delisle: ‘It’s like Voldemort in Harry Potter, ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’). Although the junta has had her under house arrest for the last thirteen years, The Lady is not home today. She’s spending her sixty-fourth birthday in Rangoon’s Insein prison, awaiting a verdict on sham charges of breaking her detention. If found guilty, she may be imprisoned for the next five years – safely out of the way for the elections scheduled in twelve months’ time.

Burma Chronicles, Guy Delisle, Cape 2009


Max Dunbar
was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals including Open Wide, Straight from the Fridge and Lamport Court. He also writes articles on politics and religion for Butterflies and Wheels. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry. He is a co-editor of 3:AM and blogs here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, June 19th, 2009.