Thursday, September 2, 2010

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea - Guy Delisle



As far as graphic novels are concerned, a year ago I would have told you I didn't like them. What that really meant was I had never tried them, and was slightly intimidated by them. A comic book? Literature? Are you kidding me?

Well shame on me and that sad horse I was riding around on. I made graphic novels one of my personal goals for 2010, and I've not only enjoyed them, but embraced them. Every one of the graphic novels I've reviewed this year have been fabulous. With my latest read, Pyongyang, however, I think I've uncovered the crown jewels of the graphic novel world, thanks to the recommendation of Alyce. This is a graphic novel that transcends vivid, eye candy illustrations and nudges your sense of right and wrong.

When you think of North Korea, you think of what? Danger. Dictatorship. A fortress. Axis of Evil. Nuclear threat. Human rights issues. I also think of this satellite photo that my husband sent me awhile back, showing both North and South Korea.



When North Korea begrudgingly cracked open their doors to foreign investors, Guy Delisle found himself assigned to a two-month stint in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, working for a French animation company. This book represents a travelogue of his time there.

We instantly get a sense for Delisle's personality. He smuggles in a radio and a copy of 1984 (intended as a gift for his translator, a significance that is not lost on us), he is a happy-go-lucky guy, loves music, likes to party, and is a bit of a rebel. All this from a graphic novel? Yes.

He bravely and resolutely gives us a rare and eye-opening view of a country that seems to be lost in a time warp; a parody of Communism. Blackouts, a constant flow of propaganda, a people who wear frozen smiles of "happiness" at their lot in life, museums of "international friendship", the hatred of Americans, and bad food. He could never leave his hotel room without being accompanied by his guide or translator. He described a leader (Kim Jong-il) whose presence in the country is more dominant than Jesus in Christian countries. On every wall a picture, on every citizen a pin, on every street a shrine. According to the North Koreans, Kim Jong-il published no less than 1,200 works, including a number of specialized military treatises, and hit 11 holes-in-one in his first golf game. And they pretend to believe all of it, or maybe they actually DO believe it. I'm not sure which is worse.

A few of Delisle's observations:

"With a six-day work week, one day of "volunteer" work and preparations for big events, the average citizen has almost no spare time. Body and soul serve the regime."

"When I arrived, I saw a team of "volunteers", hanging from ropes, paint a pretty royal blue over the rust on the bridge we crossed every day. Three-fourths of the way across, the work stopped (shortage of blue?). The workers never came back. Two weeks later, the rust began to show through the paint. This display of efficiency seemed like an apt analogy for the country and its regime."


One particular scene that sent chills down my spine was one where Delisle is taken to a school for gifted children:





















This may all seem a bit dreary, but in Delisle's hyper-aware, slightly sarcastic voice, it is clever, enlightening and highly entertaining. It seems like a foregone conclusion that I must read his other works, "Shenzhen" and "Burma Chronicles". He is just that good.

5 out of 5 stars

19 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

Sounds fascinating! I often think what life must be like for those living in North Korea. When I travelled round China I was sad to discover how scared the Chinese were to talk about their past. It must be a thousand times worse for those in North Korea.

I'm going to see if I can get a copy of this soon.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I've heard so much good about this particular book - I can't wait to read it

Julie P. said...

Wow -- sounds so good. I would have never picked this one up on my own so thanks for bringing it to my attention!

caite said...

dreary...yes, that is one word that comes to mind when I think of N.Korea.and I could not think of an odder subject for a graphic book..but wow, it sounds like it works!

Zibilee said...

This does sound really good! Though I keep meaning to read graphic novels, as yet, I haven't started with them, and I think I may secretly harbor some of the feelings that you had before becoming so enmeshed with them. I do have a list of great recommendations that I want to get started with, but can't seem to get over my mental stumbling block. Although I don't now when I will get to it, I am adding this book to the list. My horizons need broadening, you know what I mean?

Gavin said...

I haven't read this one yet, it sounds great. I'm so glad you are enjoying the graphic form!

Kathleen said...

I read graphic novels for the first time this year also and have been amazed at how much I love them. This book sounds like a must read for me.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

I love reading about the graphic books you discover. I swear someday I will get brave enough to try one!

bermudaonion said...

This is exactly the kind of graphic novel I love! Thanks for your great review!

Alyce said...

I'm so glad that you liked this one too! It's definitely one of the best graphic novels that I've read!

The Bumbles said...

Am I the only one who thinks perhaps those "workers" were painting the bridge as busy work/punishment and then "disappeared" for real?

That satellite image is very powerful. As is this novel I'm sure. Images speak so loudly sometimes.

Amy said...

This book sounds fascinating, Sandy. I'm very curious about it, although it sounds like there are many sad situations depicted, a way of life that's difficult for us to understand. Guy Delisle makes a good and interesting narrator it seems.
Thanks for a wonderful review.

~ Amy

Nymeth said...

This sounds absolutely AMAZING and I can't believe I haven't read it myself! Also, I'm so glad you left that old horse behind ;)

Trisha said...

Yay for graphic novels! I have to admit I'm slightly in love with that cover. I'll have to pick this one up!

Frances said...

Well, you sold me for sure. I was the in the same place as you about graphic novels until I started reading them for a middle school library, choosing the appropriate for kids. So addictive! I have not posted on most yet, but as soon as time permits, I think I should start. And state you as my inspiration!

Jenny said...

Oh wow, I HAVE to read this!!! Thanks for reviewing it! Where did you find it? I have had trouble finding these kind of graphic novels when I'm out and about.

heidenkind said...

To echo everyone else--this sounds really cool and I MUST check it out. :)

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

This sounds fantastic, Sandy! I'm with you on that "sad horse," only recently discovering how wonderful graphic novels can be - a fantastic way to approach difficult topics.

Thanks to you and Alyce for the recommendation!

Alice Teh said...

Hey Sandy, you've just reminded me that I have a novel about North Korea. It's JIA, I think. Now I need to dig that one out and get to it. This one you've just reviewed sounds good too!