Jamilti and Other Stories by Rutu Modan, Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle

11/05/09, The Times

One of the unquestionably joyous highlights of publishing two years ago was the introduction to the English-speaking world of the Israeli graphic novelist, Rutu Modan. Exit Wounds was a witty, authentic, visually and stylistically beautiful, all-colour account of an unexpected love story unfolding in Tel-Aviv against the context of a suicide bombing in Hadera. Jamilti & Other Stories is a collection of her earlier work and, unlike a lot of such retrospectives, which can easily give off the feel of ‘bottom drawer’ doodles, this is even better than Exit Wounds.

It is a collection of seven short stories, each one illustrated in a different style, with the final story, ‘Your Number One Fan’, executed in the Hergé-like style we saw in Exit Wounds: clean lines; black dots for eyes; mobile, intensely expressive faces; surprising depth of field. The title story, a tale of a suicide bombing witnessed by a young Israeli woman who is about to get married, contains that sting-in-the-tail that is the hallmark of the textbook short story but this twist is a subtle, devastating and endlessly interpretable one, the almost-closed eyes of the woman over the final three panels at once eloquent and unyielding with meaning. ‘Bygone’, the only one drawn entirely in black-and-white with astonishing clarity, is set in a family-run ‘theme hotel’ in Naharia and also delivers a potent punch towards the end, this time in the form of a family secret that has been staring us in the face since the beginning. ‘The King of Lillies’, a festival of chrome and ochre yellows, oranges and browns, is about a cosmetic surgeon who, haunted by the sudden disappearance of his beloved Lilly, takes to remaking scores of his patients in the image and likeness of his lost lover. When Lilly turns up towards the end, the conclusion is very far from the expected. There is even a serial killer story, ‘The Panty Killer’, drawn with gleeful grotesquery, that manages to be suffused with sympathy.

Modan tells her stories with impeccable economy, each picture really worth a thousand words. Almost every story here has the depth of an Alice Munro short story and that crucial interpretive indeterminacy, something withheld, something that resists pinning down. Above all, it’s the deep humanity of her works that is so startling; she holds it forward in all its ragged, fallible, flawed wholeness and we feel almost an enlightenment after reading them.

Far from this unbounded generosity is Guy Delisle’s tone in his latest, Burma Chronicles. Delisle garnered a lot of praise for his first travelogue graphic novel, Pyongyang, which gave a fascinating peek into North Korea, one of the truly closed societies in the world. His second, Shenzhen, while still anthropologically interesting and informative, and marked by better artwork than Pyongyang, was distorted by a crude xenophobia: page after page was devoted to whingeing about how the Chinese don’t look like ‘us’ (first-world Caucasians), smell like us, eat like us, speak like us, even urinate and defecate like us. Now that’s a blindingly original revelation.

With Burma Chronicles, the account of his year in Myanmar in the company of his wife, Nadège, a doctor for the Médecins sans Frontières, and their baby son, Louis, this attitude has become a nasty default option. What could have been another riveting piece of journalistic storytelling gets repeatedly short-circuited by the hypercomplaining presence of Delisle himself: it’s too hot, there are constant power outages, the military regime running the country is appalling, there are too many mosquitoes, the food sucks, the built structures are crap, there is a random unavailability of things in the supermarket, the bus journey to Mudon is terrible … and so it goes.

All the observations are true yet a book is not just about the ‘what’ but also about the ‘how’; swinging between the poles of faux-naiveté and an innate sense of superiority Delisle can only give these truths an unsavoury spin, which boils down to one question: why is Burma not like the white, liberal-democratic first world? This is the difference between, say, Marjane Satrapi or Joe Sacco and Delisle. Satrapi and Sacco have been incandescently critical of Iran and Israel, respectively, yet their criticism is rounded, without a trace of condescension, whereas Delisle’s chronicling of difference careens over into a sneering ‘Us vs Them’ arrogance. His clinical self-absorption works as both occluding filter and black hole so that, on one hand, nothing about Burma survives unclouded by this carping perception and, on the other, everything is sucked into the vortex of Delisle’s relentless moaning. On top of that, the details of Nadège’s MSF work show up Delisle’s self-centredness as crass and puerile. Early in the book, he observes, ‘I’ve often sat in on all the big questions that are the fodder of debate in humanitarian circles. I don’t have much to say.’ Surprise, that.