Guy Delisle: Pyongyang – A Journey in North Korea

by Philip Gowman on 17 November, 2006

in Book Reviews, Books on DPRK, Memoirs, Travel Books

Pyongyang - A journey in North Korea(Jonathan Cape, 2006)

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An account of a three-month work stint in Pyongyang at around the start of the Bush presidency, this book is neither particularly topical (it’s taken some time to be translated from the original French) nor well-titled. But it sure is original. We’ve read travel accounts of North Korea before; we’ve heard about the bleakness, the depression … but maybe we’ve never seen it. That’s where this book scores, because it’s rather a unique concept: a travel account in the form of a graphic novel. You can attempt to capture in words the gloominess of Restaurant Number One in one of Pyongyang’s few hotels, but to have a picture of it is something else.

The graphic nature of the book, though, is also a small weakness. The few graphic novels I’ve read have been Japanese manga — fantasies, crazy stories; so you’re pre-programmed to process what you see on the page in a particular way. It’s an interesting tension as you turn the pages, in part feeling that any minute some weird pokemon character is going to wander into the story, but also knowing from other books that this account is pretty close to reality.

And there are some weird pokemon characters who appear. Delisle’s guides and translators are entertaining enough in their dead-pan way, but the diplomat doing his Zorba dance at the weekly disco is killingly funny.

The story is laid out quite cinematically. You see frames which don’t seem to be very important, (the turtle in the restaurant’s aquarium, a long-shot of a skyscraper having its windows cleaned), only to find that later on the frames have more significance. The scene in the rooftop restaurant where the somewhat rudimentary way the window-cleaners’ cradle is suspended from the roof is really rather scary.

Some of the scenes in the book are fairly familiar to those who have read any books about the DPRK: the compulsory visits to the usual list of museums and monuments. Those interested in the film industry will appreciate the reason for Delisle’s visit to Pyongyang: supervising a team of outsourced animators doing the in-between frames. Delisle’s frustration at the communication difficulties is hilarious. But interestingly, to a British reader, it’s not the Korean cultural references which seem alien in this book, it’s the French ones. The poor graphic artists are asked to animate a particularly French hand gesture which apparently means little more than Oh la la but simply looks as if you’re scratching your stomach.

Well worth searching out.

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