by Guy Delisle
A few years ago I went through a little graphic phase. After being enchanted by Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, a graphic novel which showed the literary possibilities of the form, I quickly happened upon a very different kind of graphic experience in the political travelogues of Joe Sacco. First published by Fantagraphics his series of strips on Palestine were collected together by Jonathan Cape and led me onto his travels into Bosnia and Sarajevo. I guess part of the appeal was to have an easily accessible format to get some basic education about the politics behind those particular areas of conflict (pictures, and everything), but there was also something I loved about the self-deprecating humour and those moments where the shock of reality cut through the page, literally in black and white.
Following in a similar vein Guy Delisle produced a book called Pyongyang, a unique depiction of life in that most secretive of states, which I picked up in a bookshop, began reading and finished there and then in a single sitting (well, if they will place big comfy armchairs about the place). Again using simple black and white illustrations Delisle employs a similar humorous approach. Sent to North Korea as part of his work with a French animation company he spends lonely nights in a hotel, wishing for better coffee and food, leading a curious existence as he is marshaled around areas that the government deems fit to see. Slowly he is able to see more of the hidden parts of the country, getting a better idea of the life of ordinary Koreans and the realities of being part of the 'Axis-of-Evil'. That work continued with a trip to Shenzhen in China and his latest travelogue comes from Burma (or Myanmar).
The slight difference with his latest book is that it is his partner's work with MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières) that has brought them there along with their baby son Louis. For a young father like me there was so much that I found familiar from my own travels with tot that the opening few pages had me grinning in recognition. A simple hotel room becomes a gauntlet of power sockets, taps and sharp corners all of which seem to have been designed to tempt young children and torment their parents. Having finally baby-proofed the room he is able to wander the streets of another dictatorship, slowly adapting to custom and tradition. That wry humour is given ample room to entertain, the baffling nature of life in a foreign country somehow amplified by his duty of care to young Louis. The locals of course are charmed by the baby, totally ignoring his father (something I'm all too familiar with) as they pass the baby around.
Burma is of interest of course because it has been ruled by a military junta since 1962 and the leader of the opposition Aung San Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for 13 of the last 19 years. In the sequence below Delisle finds out that the house in which he is staying is literally around the corner from her own, allowing us to see how well he can combine the political and the domestic (click on the panels for a larger view).
The domestic side was of great appeal to me but for a general readership there are clear examples of the oppression which seems to arouse little protest only because that opposition is so effectively silenced. There is also something about the length of time that Delisle spends in each destination and the graphic form itself which makes it perfect for illustrating those simple details which may evade the casual traveller and yet prove to be emblematic of the country and its culture. His frustrating search for ink with which to make his drawings takes us on a wild goose chase through the local bazaars ending in a great panel, smudged and running, where he is forced to use the fountain pen ink he knew wouldn't work. The three days he spends inside a non-touristy Buddhist retreat give him an entirely new perspective (literally) on the buildings he has been looking in on for the preceding months. Through his regular walks through a park he sees a few prayer notes attached to a tree grow into many, and then a fully fledged shrine begins to develop. That public display of faith depicted in three simple panels.
Sometimes a light touch is all that is needed to expose the banality of life under oppression. The combination of the form, the content and the humour makes Delisle's work accessible and enjoyable but that lightness shouldn't mask the potential importance of them as documents. Through his short exchanges with locals and aid workers he often sums up in a few sentences the essence of the problem or hypocrisy. There's no substitute for the testimony of those living and working in any situation and it could be said that through his books Delisle is proving that old adage about the pen and the sword.