Thursday 23 July 2009

Round the corner from 'The Lady'

Burma Chronicles
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.


Max Cairnduff 23 July 2009 at 11:27  

Fascinating. I'd noticed this but hadn't realised it was the third in a series. I'll look into Pyongyang next time I'm at Gosh! (my local comic shop, and the best one in London).

Joe Sacco is indeed excellent. I've been very impressed by his work. I also enjoyed Bluesman recently, a fictional work about early travelling blues musicians, very good indeed.

bobblog 23 July 2009 at 18:03  

heh Joe Sacco's got Maltese heritage (in fact Sacco is a surname found over here) And in one of his books he details his visit over here - I think it's notes of a defeatist but I could be wrong.

I loved Burma Chronicles. Notice how Delisle is injecting more humour with every volume and his style is getting better and better. So far I loved all three of his travelogues and I hope there will be more in the future!

Max Cairnduff 23 July 2009 at 18:11  

It's interesting to see you covering comics actually (actually, here graphic novels probably is the right term as that's how these are written, I just dislike it a bit as it's often used by people who don't like to admit they read comics but who're actually talking about what are really monthly comics collected in trade paperback format).

I've considered covering them on my blog occasionally, but I tend to see them as a medium in their own right, separate to literature. Perhaps I'm getting bogged down on classifications though, there's certainly some work of real merit out there.

This is a definite buy for me, I'd already noticed it but not investigated, but I love this sort of thing. I've not read Notes of a Defeatist yet, Palestine though I thought actually managed to add to my understanding which is no small thing.

bobblog 23 July 2009 at 18:31  

Hmmm I think the term 'graphic novels' and 'comics' should not be separate terms as it sort of gives the impression that Graphic Novel is a higher form of literature while comics are base things, which is definitely not true.

I personally think that comics are just as important as literature, Maus, Bottomless Belly Button, Blankets and The Watchmen are just as literary as any novel you come across.

my opinion of course :)

William Rycroft 23 July 2009 at 19:57  

I don’t know about the comics/graphic novel distinction but I do know that I have really enjoyed non-fiction works like Sacco’s, Delisle’s and David B’s excellent memoir, Epileptic. I had wanted to know more about the situation in Palestine for example but found much of the ‘written’ documents rather intimidating as a novice. Not only was Sacco’s book accessible but, as you say Max, genuinely enlightening. I’m a big fan of personal testimony.

Thanks for the tip about Bluesman too, Max. It was on my radar but must have fallen off at some point. I have a feeling that my blues-obsessed father-in-law may find a copy in his stocking this year.

It’s nice to have the opportunity to talk about graphic work on the blog. The only reason I hadn’t so far was because all the books we’ve mentioned came before Just William’s Luck was born. Hopefully there’ll be more…

Max Cairnduff 23 July 2009 at 19:57  

I largely agree actually. There can be something defensive about the term graphic novel, but comics have nothing to be defensive about.

That said, I don't think they are literature, that's not saying they're lesser, I just think they're different. A comic, for me, is a fusion of art, words and story, with the art sometimes the most important. That to me makes it a different medium, related, but different.

Max Cairnduff 23 July 2009 at 20:01  

I've not read it yet William, but I have Berlin, City of Stone at home and that looks tremendous, might be up your street.

On a perhaps less highbrow note, I also enjoy titles such as Y the Last Man, The Walking Dead, Hellboy and the superlative Criminal series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Those are though of a different nature to titles such as Berlin or Bluesman, so there's no guarantee at all you'd like any of them (unlike Berlin, which I suspect you would).

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