Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (2005)
Author: Guy Delisle
Genre: Graphic Novel (Memoir)
Arriving at the Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, and armed with a copy of George Orwell's 1984, a cd player, and an overlooked, though contraband, pocket transistor radio, French Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle finds himself in the world's most isolated country en route to oversee production of a children's cartoon for a French animation company. Though isolated, Delisle soon finds he is not alone. Documenting the two months that Delisle spent in Pyongyang, the memoir is a virtual photo archive of his observations while sequestered (mostly) in the Yangakkdo Hotel (one of three hotels available to foreigners). Isolated, but certainly not alone, Delisle finds himself with a guide (Mr. Kyu) and a translator (Mr. Sin), who shadow his movements, consistently denying his requests for visits to seemingly banal locations like the subway and, as unlikely as it seems, the photocopy room. Rather, Delisle's intrepid escorts shuttle him back and forth to idolatric monuments to North Korea's president (though deceased) Kim Il-sung, and his son, Kim Jong-il, and sterile, though "official" landmarks, such as the Juche Tower, the Arc de Triomphe (North Korea's celebration of the "defeat" of the Japanese in 1945 (seemingly ignoring, as Delisle observes, the role that the bombing of Hiroshima played in "pushing back the enemy")), the International Friendship Exhibition (where a well-maintained, but apparently unused four-lane highway unceremoniously ends), and the Ryugyong Hotel, a then-failed attempt at the world's tallest hotel. Noting that portraits of Papa Kim and his son adorn every edifice and wall (except, of course, for the toilets), Delisle portrays a totalitarian country under an ever watchful eye, that of a father and son painted to be one and the same, never aging and free of defects (Kim Il-sung's neck goiter being consistently redacted). Along the way, Delisle observes a frequently desolate cityscape, void of light (a metaphor he uses to great effect in describing the effectively brainwashed, though oppressed, populace). Simultaneously a switchback of storylines -- that of Delisle's production work while in country (frequently reduced to fits while trying, in earnest, to convey a sense of comic expression to the production line animators) and his observations of the bizarre though often empathetic plight of the North Korean people -- and his own frustrations of reconciling a capitalist mindset with an ominous, Big Brother presence, Pyongyang provides an insight to a famously isolated military regime few outsiders witness. SPOILER: In an attempt to find radio broadcasts otherwise unsanctioned by the North Korean government, Delisle experiences a "total letdown," picking up a dozen radio AM and FM frequencies all playing the same station. Despite being denied access to all but one of Pyongyang's subway stations, Delisle sneaks away from his guide and finds, much to his surprise, nothing more than an active though not unusual underground (an observation repeatedly made of a city shrouded in secrecy, one where projects abruptly end almost as soon as they begin, and where "volunteers" maintain otherwise desolate stretches of expansion to nowhere). In an interesting twist, Delisle allows an animator friend, Fabrice, to illustrate a two-page anecdote about having his camera film confiscated after he was seen photographing a pile of garbage cans, apparently a forbidden act. When the film was developed and returned, there were no pictures of garbage on the negatives, but a few images were blacked out, much to Fabrice's outrage. And, in an interesting move, Delisle provides a sole dissident opinion in the form of an anonymous voice in a stairwell, decrying North Korean films as nothing more than propaganda, an opposing voice that would otherwise render one relegated to an internment camp in the far northern outposts of the country.
Geographical Setting: Pyongyang, North Korea
Time Period: 2001
There is a vibrant, cartoonish style to Delisle's black and white artwork throughout Pyongyang, done predominately in softly shaded pencil, allowing gray tones to illustrate his view of North Korea, a country void of color and light. Done in a style similar to la bande dessinee, Delisle creates simple caricatures of human figures with more detailed, intricate drawings of backgrounds, landscapes, and focal objects. His portrayal of himself is perhaps the most simplistic of all, downplaying his own role and instead placing the focus on his surroundings. Delisle's approach to his panel driven story is one of an angular, expressive style, clearly placing the detail where it should rest: on the North Korean landscape. He also uses a warped sense of time to great effect, allowing paneled scenes to jump quickly when necessary and shift perspective when desired. His approach illustrates his animation background, occasionally using a short circuit technique much adored by animators (one instance shows Kim Il-sung wearing a lapel pin adorned with a picture of his son, who is wearing a pin of a picture of his father, and so on). Pyongyang moves the reader along rather quickly, revealing characters and Delisle's own memories at a page-turning pace. Readers are instantly immersed in the story line, and will likely find it to be an engrossingly fast read. Perhaps purposefully, Delisle's use of dialogue creates a quick read, but his illustrations are deceptively detailed (his renditions of both the ill-fated Ryongyong Hotel and of the cover artwork featuring a cadre of wide grinning accordion players are at once hysterical and pathetic). A second read-through allows for an observation of subtlety perhaps missed in the first pass. Once the plot line is easily revealed, the reader will likely relish Delisle's use of shading and purposeful line placement, which reveals a level of authenticity to the backgrounds he portrays. Characters are given the level of detail that they frequently warrant -- the reader learns much about Delisle and his animation cronies, but perhaps less so about the inner workings of his North Korean counterparts. This, of course, is not without merit, as Delisle paints a picture of outwardly single-minded subjects that he consistently, though unsuccessfully, attempts to understand. The eccentric characters (his replacement guide seems intent upon reading the dictionary at all times, while the apparition of a housekeeper mysteriously replaces his rationed water as he sleeps each morning) are evocative and eerily familiar, yet rather distant and strange (much like the author's view of this isolated land). Clearly an action oriented travelogue/memoir, Delisle recounts his day-to-day observations as he struggles to learn something of this strange country while on a working assignment (despite an apparent ability to truly understand the idiosyncrasies of a perceived brainwashed population). The thought-provoking illustrations and ruminations are not entirely resolved by book's end, and that seems to be in line with Delisle's overall observations. To the author's credit, a healthy dose of humor offsets an otherwise sad series of observations (his attempt to convey the subtleties of reggae, for example, is lost on his North Korean counterparts as he sings, "Get up, stand up!... Stand up for your rights!"). The overall tone, then, while frequently laugh-out-loud funny, is quite bittersweet. The jokingly observed rituals are beset by a bleak, almost nightmarish tone. Still, the overall effect is as humorous as it is thought-provoking. Delisle's direct, conversational style and consistent use of metaphor (the running theme of an unlit cityscape peopled by mindless drones, for instance) provide the reader with insight to an otherwise stark setting.
Read-alikes: Readers who found Delisle's humorous observations of a strange land compelling, and delighted in his detailed use of pencil shading and expressive style, would likely find his graphic novel, Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China an engaging read. In a city isolated from the rest of the country, Delisle's travelogue finds him in a similar role performing animation work in China, slyly observing life as an alien in a Communist regime. Those who enjoyed Delisle's well-detailed eccentric characters, effective use of black and white to delineate light and create an otherwise bleak tone, and an easily engrossing story line, would likely be rewarded by reading Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood. During the reintroduction of the Islamic state in 1979, Satrapi recounts her life from age 10 to 14, using her own rebelliousness to convey an historically important moment in time. Readers who relished Delisle's sly use of humor in the face of oppression and his ironic use of cartoon imagery and angular style, but would like more narrative detail in the story line, would likely enjoy Ted Rall's To Afghanistan and Back: A Graphic Travelogue. Having spent three weeks in Afghanistan during U.S. military strikes, Rall's journalistic approach reveals a country (and war) beset with corruption, despair, and deceit. For those readers who enjoyed the deceptively simple yet intricate and in-your-face style of Pyongyang, purposeful yet direct dialogue, and the reveal of a strange, misunderstood landscape, Joe Sacco's The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo would prove both challenging and rewarding. Sacco reveals in graphic form his relationship with a fixer, who in exchange for cash, leads journalists through the war-torn landscapes of Bosnia and Sarajevo in search of news stories. Readers who find fascinating the focus on background and setting in a deceptively cartoonish style, an engrossing, page-turning pace, but would like greater depth and historical insight, would likely enjoy Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Survivor's Tale. Through conversations with his father, the author and narrator tells the story of a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, using subtle imagery and colorful language to paint a portrait of one of man's darkest moments. Readers who delight in a careful, almost restrained use of line drawing, observations of an exotic subculture, and purposeful though direct use of dialogue, would find a real gem in Yoshihiro Tatsumi's Abandon the Old in Tokyo. The second work in a continuing series, Tatsumi reveals the seedy underground of 1960's Tokyo, commenting on Japan's societal and sexual mores.
Red Flags: Occasional profanity