How is everyday life in Burma

Alice Grünstelder · fields of literature

It starts with the name: Myanmar, Burma or Burma? And with this confusion, which is difficult to explain in a few lines and pictures, Guy Delisle also begins his comic travel diary. As the companion of his wife, who looks after hospitals in northern Burma for the organization “Medècins Sans Frontières”, the French-Canadian comic artist spends eleven months in this country, which at that time caused a sensation mainly with negative headlines.

The days and weeks do not pass any faster for a father on parental leave in Burma than anywhere else: Alone in an isolated environment, the ceiling soon falls on his head. Although the foreign baby is the pride of the neighborhood, they don't even want to let a father with a stroller go to the world's most famous prisoner at the time - Aung San Suu Kyi - who lives just around the corner. In the supermarket, as elsewhere, Karen Carpenter beats up employees and products with "Every shalala ..." La Vache qui rit and Nescafébecause there are hardly any customers. And how are you supposed to pay with these bills that stand for amounts like 45, 90, etc.? These people have to go crazy or world champions in mental arithmetic, the comic artist ponders and tries to depict an everyday life of whatever kind in this police state.

Stick with Delisle's previous comics Shenzhen and Pyongyanglaughing stuck in the throat, since the author often tried in vain to familiarize local animators with the art of animation, this time the whole environment is so incredibly absurd that the required reader has no choice but to "laugh away the absurdity". Surprisingly, that suits the story very well, because Delisle's plots had so far only a few climaxes and turning points - not to mention the main character's deeper insight into the respective complex society - so this time he packs his experiences into shorter chapters and knows how to stage it in a skillful way. In small, sharply drawn images of the arbitrariness and ridiculousness of all reprisals, there are sometimes almost lyrical moments shots of excursions to Inle Lake and to rural regions inhabited by the rebellious Karen.

Guy Delisle does not neglect political issues either. When all the NGOs leave after the government had moved the capital inland practically overnight - “the most surreal of all rumors turns out to be true” - “Medècins Sans Frontières” remains. But under what conditions does humanitarian aid still make sense? Delisle says, quite self-critically, that the only sensible thing he created in Burma was a comic for HIV-infected children so that they could take their medication regularly.

But what is left for the people? According to Delisle, people's will is paralyzed because everyday life is infiltrated with fear. Is Burma also called the land of the pagodas because religion is the last refuge? At the beginning the author tries to explain Theravada Buddhism with a few pictures, but it fails. His interest in nirvana does not go very far, because when he is supposed to attend a 10-day meditation course, he laconically states that his curiosity is not so great after all. At the end of his stay, he changes his mind, visits a monastery for three days and records his lack of concentration in a most amusing and self-deprecating way. For isn't true knowledge that of knowing nothing? And the longer you live in a country, the less and less it is to understand? “I have the strange impression that I've got to the other side of the mirror,” Delisle sums up wisely.

Guy Delisle: Records from Burma. Translated from the French by Kai Wilksen. Reprodukt, 2009, 263 pages, CHF 34.50

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22nd August 2016