Saturday, December 3, 2011

Review: Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

Pyongyang: A journey in North Korea (graphic novel)
by Guy Delisle

Published: 2002

Synopsis:Famously referred to as one of the "Axis of Evil" countries, North Korea remains one of the most secretive and mysterious nations in the world today. In early 2001 cartoonist Guy Delisle became one of the few Westerners to be allowed access to the fortresslike country. While living in the nation's capital for two months on a work visa for a French film animation company, Delisle observed what he was allowed to see of the culture and lives of the few North Koreans he encountered; his findings form the basis of this remarkable graphic novel. Pyongyang is an informative, personal, and accessible look at a dangerous and enigmatic country.

Whenever I read a news article, journal piece or book about life somewhere like North Korea, all my complaints about Australia fade away. I end up feeling ashamed for my "first world problems," and thanking my lucky stars that I live in a country where I can rail against authority, and challenge the government and question what the media tries to shove down my throat. It really is true that you never realise how lucky you have it until you see how the "other half" live. This graphic novel once again made me cringe at my pathetic concerns, but it did so in a unique and interesting way.

The graphic novel covers the two months that cartoonist Guy Delisle spent working in North Korea. We're all aware that N.K. isn't exactly a happy-go-lucky country that showers it's inhabitants with sugar and rainbows. While this graphic novel doesn't shy from revealing the extent of the propaganda machine and extreme nanny-state, it approaches it from a personal perspective and therefore we see the aspects that specifically effected his stay in N.K. Probably most present in the novel is the extreme boredom that he suffers as a result of there being literally nothing to do there that doesn't involve being followed by a guide and a translator and paying respect to the "great" leaders. Almost everything is off limits to foreigners, even, as he remarks towards the end of the book, the photocopying room on level 2. But that doesn't even come close to the restrictions placed upon the actual inhabitants of N.K, at least the foreigners are given extensive food rations and a casino for their enjoyment.

The tone of the book is rather dry and sarcastic and more reactionary and sardonic than I expected. Because this is his personal diary of sorts, what we experience is his growing frustration and exasperation of being stuck in this country when there is a whole world going on nearby that he can't touch. Much of the interaction with actual Koreans further demonstrates these emotions, because even as he arcs up and tries to rebel against their strict rules, or throws them harsh questions about "believing all the bullshit being pushed down their throats," they react in a surprised or naively cheerful manner that further exasperates him. It is much more of a personal account of a foreigners experience in N.K rather than a descriptive tale of life within the walled country, so readers should be aware that is what they're going to be reading. But personally I think this was a more successful way of telling the story because it's what we (or at least I) can relate to, life in a world completely different to my own, that I'm unlikely to be able to come completely to grips with. That being said, it does make some very pointed remarks on the way N.K is ruled and provides some insight into the methods used to brainwash the Koreans from a very early age.

The art is very simplistic. Black and white with little extraneous detail. Simple though it may be, I find it perfectly matched not only to dark point of view of Guy, but to the country and the propaganda efforts of the government as well. In many ways the methods used upon the Koreans are very simplistic in design, they're told that everything in N.K is the fault of the Americans (and anyone pro-America) and that their leaders are responsible for the little success there is in N.K. The fact that they can have a handful of rice a day is thanks to the "honourable leader" fighting back against the Americans who don't want a unified Korea and try to hurt N.Koreans at every turn. It's a uncomplicated method that seems extremely effective, at least regarding anyone Guy met upon his "travels".

It's a quick and unchallenging read, but a really interesting peek into a world we rarely glimpse. If you're wanting a more in-depth guide to life and politics in North Korea then this really isn't your book. But if you're interested in seeing how life exists there, especially regarding interaction between foreigners and Koreans, and you're more interested in a personal account then I think perhaps this is the book for you. Guy Delisle isn't a biographer or journalist or researcher, he's a cartoonist who spent two months in North Korea. This is his story as only he can tell it. Worth a read.

1 comment:

  1. Up until a year ago I had almost no interest in reading graphic novels. Then came along Persepolis and to a slightly lesser extent, Anya's Ghost. Clearly I've been missing out on some great novels. I wrote this title down and now I'm always on the lookout for interesting graphic novels.

    Also, thanks for the comment on A Game Of Thrones. Now I'm even more excited to continue with the series!



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