Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

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Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

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Category: Graphic Novels
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: The first of Guy DeLisle's travelogues of Asia to hit English translation, with his usual wit, crispness of line, and honest and valuable reportage.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 184 Date: October 2006
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN: 978-0224079907

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Meet Guy. He's a French-Canadian animator, leaving home for a short stay in the capital of one of the world's most intriguing, unknown and alien cultures - Pyongyang, North Korea - so he can work on a TV cartoon co-production. Forced to stay in one of the three official hotels designed for foreigners, so that the locals and people such as he do not have to mix, he see glimpses of the unique socialist dictatorship, stunning views of the buildings forced through the poverty, and thousands of unreadable faces.

I'd love to have been in his position. I know in my heart of hearts a lot of North Korea is western propaganda, but I am equally sure too there is a lot about the country that is true - the armoured trains of Kim Jong-Il travelling past millions of undesirables in abject poverty (it's stated here that millions of people rely on half the ration of a UN refugee camp resident, and generations more are denied that for being useless to the country), the monuments to hubris if nothing else, and the culture of mental programming that allows people to happily work six days a week, then spend the seventh on volunteering to do something else for the common good, such as scything grass blades by hand or sweeping the never-used motorway with a besom.

The two months Guy lives through are detailed here most superbly, if at times we miss the rules and how he has to live under them, and the chance times he can slip his official companions to get away. The problems of his working life, when his (admirable) taste in music is deemed a problem and a distraction when he's regularly blasted with propaganda pop by the powers that be. The soulless hotel restaurants (and I thought ex-Soviet Bulgaria was bad enough!). The occasionally sanctioned trips out to organised places of further propaganda.

It's not so much about Guy, but about the country, and for this the book has to be welcomed. I've seen his work before, with his more recent Burma Chronicles, and I'm sure I can trust his clear inked line, and his architectural skill, and art at a quickly drawn personality (or, of course, lack thereof). This uses a freer framing, but less artsy tricks than the more recent book, which never got in the way of his journalism in the first place.

So throughout this, I was on a happy learning curve, as bemused as Guy by the details which with the governing forces spread their thinking and intent, as perplexed as him by so much of the North Korean way of thinking, and ultimately, as completely unsure as he was by just how much the people he interacted with believed with what they were told, how they had to live, and how to they had to act to him as a foreigner.

Guy has since said he's quite sure the book means he won't be welcome back, and yes I probably wouldn't pack it in my suitcase if I ever were to go. But until that time, this very legible, very enjoyable and very illuminating graphic novel is the next best thing.

We still don't know of any reportage from a native of that country to best This Is Paradise by Hyok Kang. You might also enjoy A Drop of Chinese Blood by James Church. You might also appreciate From The Fatherland, With Love by Ryu Murakami.

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Buy Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle at


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