I’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.
And 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.