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Review: Pyongyang (Guy Delisle)

Title: Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
Author: Guy Delisle
Genre: Graphic Novel, International setting
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
FTC Disclosure: I bought this with my own money (and then donated it to my school library)
Challenges: Graphic Novel (#13)
Summary (from the back of the book): "Guy Delisle is a wry 37-year-old French Canadian cartoonist whose work for a French animation studio requires him to oversee production at various Pacific Rim studios on the grim frontiers of free trade. His employer puts him up for months at a time in 'cold and soulless' hotel rooms where he suffers the usual maladies of the long-term boarder: cultural and linguistic alienation, boredom, and cravings for Western food and real coffee. Delisle depicts these sojourns into the heart of isolation in [the] brilliant graphic novel, Pyongyang..." --Foreign Affairs

Famously referred to as an "Axis-of-Evil" country, North Korea remains one of the most secretive and mysterious nations in the world today. A series of man-made and natural catastrophes have also left it one of the poorest. When the fortress-like country recently opened the door a crack to foreign investment, cartoonist Guy Delisle found himself in its capital of Pyongyang on a work visa for a French film animation company, becoming one of the few Westerners to witness current conditions in the surreal showcase city.

Armed with a smuggled radio and a copy of 1984, Delisle could only explore Pyongyang and its countryside while chaperoned by his translator and a guide. But among the statues, portraits and propaganda of leaders Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-Il--the world's only Communist dynasty--Delisle was able to observe more than was intended of the culture and lives of the few North Koreans he encountered. His astute and wry musings on life in the austere and grim regime form the basis of this remarkable graphic novel. Pyongyang is an informative, personal, and accessible look at an enigmatic country.

Review: This graphic novel is quite different from the other ones I've read in a couple of ways.
  • The illustrations are in shades of black and white. I thought that I wouldn't like it since the graphic novels I've read so far have had wonderful color graphics. Wait. I take that back. The first graphic novel I read (SO many years ago) was Maus and that had black and white illustrations as well. Both of these graphic novels were based in depressing real life events so perhaps that's why the authors chose not to use color. I think the use of black and white was really effective in Pyongyang because it underscored the tough life of people living in North Korea.
  • The story line of this graphic novel is based on the author's own experience of visiting North Korea for a few months to work on one aspect of an animation project. The author did a really good job of using story telling to show the animation process, without getting too technical, and to show what life is like in North Korea for both foreign visitors and local Koreans.
I know life isn't good for North Koreans (drought, famine, strict government, etc.), but I had no idea just how far the restrictions and control go.
  • One highway, that takes 2 hours to drive, was built just to take tourists to a museum that houses gifts the Eternal President (their President who has been dead since 1994) from foreign countries.
  • "Volunteers" work many of the menial jobs such as painting a rusting bridge. When they run out of paint they stop mid-job and it never gets completed.
  • Upon arrival at the airport foreigners are given a bouquet of flowers, not to keep, but to lay down at a statue of the Eternal President (first stop on the official tour).
  • Local Koreans have to be off the streets at 10pm. Foreigners cannot go anywhere without the official guide.
I could go on, but I think you'd probably like to find out the rest by reading the book yourself!


Alyce said...

I've been meaning to read this one, but keep forgetting to put it on hold at the library. After reading your review I feel like I definitely need to move it up on my TBR list.

Aarti said...

I really like that the graphic novel format is being stretched to incorporate so many different types of stories. It is very powerful and I hope it means that in future, we'll have more of a melding- more novels with illustrations, ideally.

Helen's Book Blog said...

Alyce and Aarti--This isn't a great graphic novel, but it was really interesting to find out what it's really like in North Korea. I feel like NK is so shrouded in secrecy!

Nic Miles said...

I read this graphic novel for a class in college called 'Comic Books as Great Literature.' I agree with Helen that it isn't the best graphic novel around. However, I also just finished reading The Photographer by Didier Lefevre. It's about a journalist who spends a few months in Afghanastan shadowing a team of doctors the work for Doctors Without Borders. It's a great read, and my assignment is to write an essay comparing a setting from both Pyongyang and The Photographer.