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