Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Burma Chronicles

by Guy Delisle

It's nice to finally finish Guy Delisle's unofficial trilogy of memoirs set in dictatorships (the first two books are Pyongyang and Shenzhen), with this book set primarily in Rangoon, but named for the entire country (unless you prefer to call it Myanmar).

Similarly to the first two books, Delisle spends a stretch of time in this country that is less than available to Westerners.  The difference this time around is that he is accompanied by his wife Nadège, and his infant son Louis, and this time he is not there for his work, but for his wife's.  She is a doctor with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), which was hoping at the time to be able to open up avenues for treatment for some of Burma's indigent and discriminated against minorities, in areas of unrest.

Delisle is basically along for the ride in this book, sticking around first a guest house and then a rented home borrowed from the project leader, looking after Louis.  This also means he has much more time to explore, and we are treated to his observations and thoughts on life in Rangoon under the military junta.  And it seems like Rangoon is a pretty strange place.  There is a high degree of government control, although it's quite subtle and much of it escapes notice.

Delisle ends up doing a number of touristic things - trying to see the home where Aung San Suu Kyi, the celebrated dissident has been confined for decades, taking part in a monastic retreat, and visiting various ex-pat institutions to hang out.  He also tries to get to know his neighbours, and runs an animation class for a few interested locals.

The book is filled with his usual humour and sometime bumbling awkwardness, and is quite charming throughout.  The book is divided into short strips that never last more than a few pages, but which, when read as a whole, provide a detailed mosaic of life in one of the least understood countries on the planet (at least to Western readers).

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