Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

PyongyangI’m slowly making my way through A Suitable Boy, but as much as I’m enjoying it, I’m finding it useful to take breaks from it to read shorter things. So when I was last at the library, I picked up Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle’s graphic memoir of the two months he spent in North Korea helping oversee the animation of a children’s cartoon.

As a foreigner, Delisle is assigned a guide and a translator and given strict instructions about things he can and cannot do. He spends most of his time working and hanging out with other foreign workers in his hotel, but he makes a few obligatory visits to such destinations as the International Friendship Exhibition, a massive museum that displays all the gifts given to the country’s eternal president, Kim Il-sung. As his guides take him around Pyongyang and on his rare opportunities to wander on his own, he observes the many ways that the government of North Korea controls people’s actions and their thoughts. Pictures of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il hang on a wall in every room, making their gaze impossible to escape. Nothing else can hang on those walls. The museums and media all send the message that North Korea is great and powerful, and their enemies, particularly the United States and Japan, are evil and worthless.

The actual day-to-day life that Delisle experiences and observes shows there’s dysfunction going on. The lights are kept dim in his hotel, unless some important foreign investors are visiting. There are stockpiles of rice, while people go hungry outside. When the citizens of Pyongyang aren’t working, they must volunteer to cut grass with a small pair of clippers or paint over a rusting bridge. If it weren’t so sad, the preposterousness of what Delisle sees would be hilarious. Indeed, Delisle sometimes finds it nearly impossible not to laugh at the absurdity.

pyongyang-translatorAnd that brings me to my discomfort with this book. I appreciated this inside look at a country few people get to see, but there was something in Delisle’s narration that annoyed me.  Sometimes it seemed like he got too caught up in the absurdity of what he was seeing and forgot that the people he was interacting with were people. They may have been tools of the government, spouting the party line, but what choice did they have? What other option do they even know? Delisle is aware of the danger of being informed on and sent to a re-education camp, and he discusses how little accurate information the North Koreans receive about the outside world. But that doesn’t stop him from mocking his translator. And it also doesn’t stop him from making a distasteful rape joke about the tour guide at the appalling Museum of Imperialist Occupation, which displays abuses Americans and Japanese supposedly inflicted on North Korean prisoners. I can see the value in finding humor in absurd situations, and some moments, such as his attempt to explain reggae to a North Korean colleague, are genuinely funny. Then again, his attempt involves singing “Get Up, Stand Up,” a song which, surely, if the colleague were to mimic in front on someone who understood it, could bring her serious trouble. Ditto his lending 1984 to his guide.

I don’t know. A lot of people have liked this book. Almost all the reviews I’ve seen have been positive. But I think I really wanted an approach more like Joe Sacco’s, which is closer to traditional journalism, but in comics form. Delisle’s irreverence was off-putting to me, and even though I was interested in what he saw, I didn’t like spending time with him as my guide.

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16 Responses to Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

  1. Anokatony says:

    I am waiting for Vikram Seth to write a new much shorter book. I loved ‘Golden Gate’.

  2. Fair enough! The jokes came off to me more like what Madeleine L’Engle calls “whistling in the dark” (an expression I have never understood but whatever). I thought Delisle was letting the horror of the situation speak for itself: Is this the book of his where he asks about disabled people, and his guide says there are no disabled people here because everyone is born strong and healthy? (Or was that one of his other ones?)

    • Anokatony says:

      I’m not sure about the scene you quoted. ‘Golden Gate’ was Vikram Seth’s first book. It was a novel in verse about San Francisco. It is the verse that makes it special. I know that ‘A Suitable Boy’ was would be a great read, but 1349 pages.

    • Teresa says:

      Yeah, some of it did seem like “whistling in the dark” or maybe gallows humor. I liked it when he focused on the *situation,* like wearing shoe protectors in the museum and his snarky comment about it in the visitors’ book or the changing menu at the hotel restaurants. That stuff was funny. It bothered me when he focused on a person.

      And yes, Delisle does ask about disabled people in Pyongyang, That was a chilling moment–a really good example of just how all-consuming the state’s version of events is.

  3. Alex says:

    I have a feeling I would hate this book because as you say the people of North Korea have no option but to live the way they do if they want to live. And as for the abuse inflicted on the North Koreans by invaders, I can’t speak for the Americans but my father was a Japanese POW in the Korean camps during the last war and he always said that the Koreans who were forced to guard them had a far worse time than the prisoners did because they knew that if they did anything seen as wrong it would be their families that would suffer and that the abuse was terrible.

    • Teresa says:

      I kept feeling so sorry for the people. Whether their comments were out of fear or being brainwashed by the state media, I couldn’t be angry at them. Delisle does a pretty good job of showing just how pernicious the propaganda was, even if his attitude about the people affected bothered me.

      That’s so interesting about your father. I kept wondering what the consequences for Delisle’s handlers would have been if they said what they really thought. As for the stuff he saw in the museum, Delisle thought it was straight-up propaganda, and I’m inclined to think he was right, given how extreme it was and how much other obvious misinformation he saw.

  4. Deb says:

    He sounds colossally irresponsible–teaching a North Korean to sing “Get Up, Stand Up” or giving one a copy of 1984 could have appalling consequences for the recipient and several generations if their family. In his desire to present himself as some sort of secret agitator, Delisle comes across as utterly clueless. I’m sure that wasn’t his aim, but based on those vignettes, I have to pass on this book.

    • Teresa says:

      I got the impression he saw his subversive activities as really clever but didn’t think through what it could mean. The fact that he then made a rape joke just drove home that was treating people as objects in his story, not as people with their own separate identities.

  5. aartichapati says:

    I completely agree with your assessment. I thought Delisle was unfeeling and, when he ditched his guide, really insensitive to the repercussions his actions caused for other people.

    I know how you feel about A Suitable Boy! It just goes on and on, doesn’t it? But it was an enjoyable read, I thought. And, now that I have read some other Indian authors recently, Seth is WAY LESS DEPRESSING than most of his countrymen.

    • Teresa says:

      Yeah, I don’t think I’ll read more of his books if this is his usual attitude. I’ll just read more Joe Sacco. He does similar stuff but is really sensitive in his portrayals, even when it’s difficult.

      I’m about half through with A Suitable Boy now, and it really is good but some sections move more quickly than others. It may take me another couple of weeks to finish!

  6. I love Joe Sacco! And this book sounds awful, in the whole privileged American colonialist way that can so often creep into travel narratives.

  7. 1. I think taking a break between sections of mammoth books is the way to go. I’m doing the same thing with Dicken’s Mutual Friend at the moment. I’m just about to start reading the final part.

    2. You’ve hit on my main problem with books like this one, maybe with travel like this in general. On the one hand, I would love to see first hand what life in North Korea is really like. But I want to see it for all of the wrong reasons. My going there would do nothing to improve the situation in spite of how fascinating the trip would be.

    • Teresa says:

      1. Graphic novels are especially good for those breaks, I think. They keep the break from being so long, and I get to finish something.

      2. Yeah, I think a trip like this is most valuable if you can do something with the information, even if it’s to raise awareness among people who can help. But with North Korea, it’s hard to imagine who could help. I think, though, that when done well, books like this can raise sympathy generally toward people in situations different from my own. I’ve just started reading Nothing to Envy, which is also about North Korea, and I think it does a better job because the author talks to the people and tells their stories in their voices. It feels less like she’s gawping at the weirdness and more like she cares about the people.

  8. Hi Teresa, after “Pyongyang” Guy Delisle wrote/pictured some wonderful books. He stayed a year with his wife in Burma. Then a few years later he stayed with his wife and oldest child a year in Jeruzalem. I find each travelbook by him better than the last one, his book about Jeruzalem is really wonderful, it compares quite well with Joe Sacco’s book about Palestine.
    I like your and Jenny’s blog very much. I have read a lot of the reviews of books that I’ve read myself. Keep on going. Friendly greetings from Erik from the Netherlands

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