“Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea” by Guy Delisle (Drawn and Quartely, 2007)

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This is another book — recommended to me — in a growing genre of what I guess can be called “illustrated journalism” or “illustrated memoirs”: writers telling their stories of real life through the medium of graphic novels. Of course, another big author in this genre is Marjane Satrapi, with her greatest achievement being Persepolis, and her story of living in Iran when the Shah was overthrown and the country went through some devastating times. She followed this with Persepolis 2 — which I have yet to read — a sequel of her going back to Iran, and most recently Embroideries, which I did read and while I found it interesting — a group of women meet for tea to discuss their lives as Iranian women and it seems much like one of the salons on the 1920’s, where they discuss in secrecy things that shouldn’t be talked about — I felt the book too short and didn’t go into enough depth.

Nevertheless, Satrapi and Delisle are two members of this growing genre and with the way graphic novels and comic books are continuing to increase every year in sales and support, I’m really happy that this nonfiction style is also continuing to grow because, much as you can say a lot with words and you can say a lot with pictures, uniting the true presents a whole new insight: not only do you hear the author through his or her words, but you see the emotion in the illustration and an empathic bond inevitably develops.

The author and artist of Pyongyang, Guy Delisle, works in animation and spends some time in North Korea where a part of animation has now been outsourced and there he works with a company, but the story isn’t about the animated movie he is working on, it is much more about his experience in living in this relatively unknown country. One cannot help but get the feel of entering a new and undiscovered country for the first time.

North Korea caters, naturally, to its visitors and especially its tourists, so we see a world where there are buildings, towns and structures everywhere, and yet most are run down and have no power. Yet, when the tourists arrive, all of a sudden an entire floor of the hotel is filled with light and life, as well as two of the restaurants on another floor. While the menus aren’t exactly five-star, they nevertheless have fresh goods and Delisle enjoys it, but after some weeks the quality goes down until the next group of tourists arrive, whereupon fresh melon is served once again! His most memorable description is of ordering French toast and being served with a slice of white bread on which has been sprinkled milk and warmed in the microwave.

But one really sees in this book the scary world that North Koreans are subjected to under the rule of their president Kim Jong-Il, and while this is a communist regime, one can’t help but see stark similarities with just about every ruler, president, and emperor in the history of civilization. For example, the North Korean government goes to extremes to portray Kim Jong-Il and his deceased father and predecessor Kim Il-Sung as almost looking identical and perfectly alive and healthy. All supporters of the government wear pins of one or the other, or a pin of the two, as well as showing constant voluntary support of their government in building shrines to one, the other, or both, and making paintings and erecting statues, and improving their country by painting a bridge or cleaning a street — it can be seen everyone, as Delisle travels around the country. The northeast part is off limits, government controlled and where, according to the rumors, are all the camps containing the prisoners and rebels. Each supporter constantly proclaims his blind faith to his president; on the radio are about three stations where songs are repetitively played that cry out the greatness of the government and the president, and the listeners are fully expected to sing along.

Tourists are not allowed to travel alone around North Korea and must be accompanied by an interpreter and staunch government supporter all the time (unless they are with the UN), who’s job it is to respect the tourists beliefs and yet to convert and enlighten him or her to the ways of their great president and supreme government. One of the most entertaining chapters of the book is when Delisle visits the great museum made for Kim Jon-Il, where everything within extols his greatness and reveals apocryphal facts about his life, such as his penning over 15,000 works before the age of twenty, and how many leaders around the world support his ideal and think him great. What’s funny is that Delisle, viewing these artifacts and gifts, is quick to point out how they are either inaccurate or not actually real. And yet the supporters believe without question and while they may listen to other ideas, never shirk their duty to constantly say good things about Mr. Jong-Il.

The book does fail somewhat in going into depth with this world, and it seems once the astonishment of this unknown land passes, Delisle tends to focus a little too much on his day to day machinations and trying to work with the North Korean people, which while interesting at first, tend to get repetitive when there is so much more to explore and see.

Near the end of the book, he focuses on how he makes paper airplanes out of scrap paper and throws them from his hotel window, hoping they will make it to the river and be free, which is the last image of the story, while a hulk of a building grows on the other side of the river where a movie theater will be built, and even though Delisle has explained this is what this is, the reader knows it’s not going to be used for Hollywood blockbusters, and had Delisle researched and investigated more, we would’ve been given further details of this mysterious country.

I will, however, add that since reading this, playing a new Xbox game called Mercenaries, where the point of the game is to make deals with all the different factions in the demilitarized zone of North Korea and capture all the wanted military of North Korea, it has at least opened my eyes and awareness of this oppressed and dark country.

It will be an interesting day, when the communist government either collapses, or is more likely overthrown, and the stories, experiences and information start pouring out about what life was like in North Korea during this time.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on August, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.