Title and author of book?
Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea by Guy Delisle
Fiction or nonfiction? This is nonfiction in the graphic novel format.
What led you to pick up this book? It’s been on my wishlist for a couple of months. When I heard that Aaron had a copy, I asked to borrow it.
Summary: Guy Delisle is a French Canadian cartoonist who works for a French animation studio. In 2003, his job led him to to North Korea on a work visa, where he would oversee work on a children’s cartoon. For two months, he stayed in Pyongyang, the surreal capital of the country. Along with a handful of other foreign workers, he was checked into one of three hotels but discouraged from exploring the city on his own. Most of the time, he was accompanied by his translator and a guide. Cameras are frowned upon in North Korea unless the subject being photographed has been okayed by the government, but Delisle made sketches of what he saw during his time there. His cartoons, accompanied by his wry musings in text give the reader a fascinating look into this grimly absurd and highly secretive culture.
Have you read any other books by this author? Not yet, but I plan to!
What did you think of the main character? I loved Delisle’s wry, dry sense of humor and his knack for observing even the smallest things. Those two characteristics are probably what saved him from going batshit during the 2 months he worked there.
Any other particularly interesting characters? The city itself seems to be a character. Every day reveals another strange layer — some funny and some just downright depressing. Delisle is particularly struck with the nonstop bombardment of propaganda — brainwashing — about Kim Il Sung (The Great Leader) and Kim Jong Il (The Dear Leader).
Share a quote from the book. “North Korea is the world’s most isolated country. Foreigners trickle in. There’s no Internet. There are no cafes. In fact, there’s no entertainment. It’s hard to leave the hotel and meeting Koreans is next to impossible. Luckily, I’ve had practice being alone because this won’t be a funhouse. Well, that’s what I thought, but I was wrong, which just goes to show that you’ve got to be ready for anything when you travel.”
Share a favorite scene from the book. I had so many favorites, but here are three:
1. Guy’s hotel is on a small island, not far from downtown. Shortly after arriving, he explores his surroundings and wryly compares them to the island in the 1960s TV show The Prisoner. He has a brief fantasy about being Number 6 and the howling balls are shooting out of the water and chasing him as he tries to escape.
2. Guy is a wiseass after my own heart. The book he brings to North Korea is… 1984! (Guy: I wonder what book a North Korean would take to France?”) He reads a bit of it, then mischievously loans it to his translator who’s having trouble understanding his current book. Guy tells him 1984 is science fiction. A couple of weeks later, the translator gives the book back to Guy, saying that he doesn’t really care for science fiction, but the accompanying drawings show him looking very freaked out and sweating nervously.
3. North Korea counts time a little differently. For them Year One began the very moment Kim Il Sung was conceived. To illustrate this explanation, Delisle drew a picture of a naked couple on a bed in the missionary position, and a disembodied hand holding a stopwatch in the foreground. There’s a speech bubble for the stopwatch guy saying “Get set, go!”
Other comments: After reading the Emma Goldman graphic biography, I appreciated how much better the text and drawings are balanced in Pyongyang. I guess being an animator helps.
North Korea is truly bizarre, but there are some goofy little things that Guy observes in Pyongyang that seem reminiscent of South Korea. Uniformity is desired and praised and Confucianism is firmly entrenched in both societies. The main difference seems to be that in North Korea those things are turned up to grotesquely distorted levels.
A reviewer on Amazon (Why do I even BOTHER reading those stupid things?) complained that Pyongyang isn’t drawn very well. I strongly disagree. The characters look a little Dilbert-ish, but Delisle’s illustrations of the sights around Pyongyang are as meticulously rendered as photographs.
It’s official: After 2 years, Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea has unseated Mark Kalesniko’s Mail Order Bride as my favorite graphic novel. I’m going to return Aaron’s copy and buy one of my own.