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Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea Paperback – May 1, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
In 2001, French-Canadian cartoonist Delisle traveled to North Korea on a work visa to supervise the animation of a children's cartoon show for two months. While there, he got a rare chance to observe firsthand one of the last remaining totalitarian Communist societies. He also got crappy ice cream, a barrage of propaganda and a chance to fly paper airplanes out of his 15th-floor hotel window. Combining a gift for anecdote and an ear for absurd dialogue, Delisle's retelling of his adventures makes a gently humorous counterpoint to the daily news stories about the axis of evil, a Lost in Translation for the Communist world. Delisle shifts between accounts of his work as an animator and life as a visitor in a country where all foreigners take up only two floors of a 50-story hotel. Delisle's simple but expressive art works well with his account, humanizing the few North Koreans he gets to know (including "Comrade Guide" and "Comrade Translator"), and facilitating digressions into North Korean history and various bizarre happenings involving brandy and bear cubs. Pyongyang will appeal to multiple audiences: current events buffs, Persepolis fans and those who just love a good yarn. (Sept.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
Pyongyang documents the two months French animator Delisle spent overseeing cartoon production in North Korea, where his movements were constantly monitored by a translator and a guide, who together could limit his activities but couldn't restrict his observations. He records everything from the omnipresent statues and portraits of dictators Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il to the brainwashed obedience of the citizens. Rather than conveying his disorientation through convoluted visual devices, Delisle uses a straightforward Eurocartoon approach that matter-of-factly depicts the mundane absurdities he faced every day. The gray tones and unembellished drawings reflect the grim drabness and the sterility of a totalitarian society. Delisle finds black comedy in the place, though, and makes small efforts at subversion by cracking jokes that go over the humorless translator's head and lending the guide a copy of 1984. Despite such humor, which made his sojourn bearable and overcame his alienation and boredom, Delisle maintains empathy. Viewing an eight-year-old accordion prodigy's robotic concert performance, he thinks, "It's all so cold . . and sad. I could cry." Gordon Flagg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
The drawing style in Pyongyang is a minimalist black and white that captures nicely the mirthless life in North Korea. You get a sense that the leadership is desperately trying to maintain a good face for the rest of the world but like the bridge in the book that only gets half painted the rust is bleeding through and the cracks are growing. There could hardly be a better advertisement for Capitalism and Democracy than the sterile, dystopia that is North Korea where airports and restaurants operate without lights and massive construction projects sit unfinished and crumbling. Freeways are built without exits and all the people listen to the same state run radio broadcast featuring music that sounds like "a cross between a national anthem and the theme song of a children's show".
North Korea has the same kind of creepiness as a cult except on a massive scale where Kim Jung Il acts as patron deity and his smiling visage is ever present in society. Each room has his portrait and his face appears on a pin that all Korean's are required to wear. This is a land where worker can advance by ratting on their fellow citizens and slight infractions can cause people to suddenly vanish.
Guy Delisle does a superb job of capturing the bleakness and bizarreness of North Korea contrasting it with his own light hearted rebellious attitude. In the end he tries to retain a shred of normalcy throwing paper airplanes from his apartment window while the people below try and hold it together in a society permeated by fear and mistrust. One of the items that the author brings with him is a copy of George Orwell's `1984' but what he found was the physical manifestations of Orwell's deepest fears brought to life.
Delisle's observations and frustrations in having to deal with North Korean bureaucracy made for a hilarious read. Although Delisle is in the country on a two-month work contract, he is still led by guides everywhere. Guest workers, like tourists, must pay their reverential respect at all North Korean monuments and propaganda museums in addition to working at their job six days a week. Delisle is given the propaganda tour and he depicts himself in some drawings as barely able to contain his laughter. He expresses his frustration at not being able to find a decent cup of coffee in the whole country. I know what I have in store yet I will be prepared in that at least I have the foreknowledge to bring my own, albeit inferior, instant coffee when compared to brewed, from home when I travel there.
The drawings were made with a variety of perspectives which I admired and enjoyed. In the midst of his adventures working with westerners and North Koreans at the animation studio, Delisle inserts a running joke in the form of a police line-up in which he asks the reader "Can You Spot the Traitors?". One must look at all the people and decide from almost an identical set of characteristics who is a traitor to the fatherland. A typical answer would be Figure #1 because "he let the portrait of Our Dear Leader gather dust". I do not believe that a graphic novel about North Korea would have had the same humorous touch if it had been written and drawn by someone who hadn't been there. A book like this would be a welcome addition to my collection on account of its artwork alone, and although I have already read it I would consider buying a copy.
I read the hardcover edition, which was 176 pages printed on a very thick paper. I always had to ensure I wasn't turning two pages at once since it often felt as though I had multiple pages between my fingers.
My overall reaction - to the story - is WHOA. North Korea is every bit as freaky as the rumours, certainly the little bit the Delisle was allowed to see. (other reviewers have wasted time whining that all the author did was hang out in hotels with other foreigners- hey morons, did you miss the point? He wasn't able to do anything else!)
Now here comes the disturbing bit- I lived in South Korea some years ago, and Delisle's North Korea is not entirely dissimilar. "volunteer" is a word the South Koreans did not understand either - saying "no" to a proposed volunteer activity gets you raked over the coals. Fine, it wasn't a forced activity for the state, but not participating got you black balled. There was a lot of enforced group-think going on, and while it did not reach the propaganda extremes of what Delisle saw in Pyongyang, it wasn't a million miles away either.
This book was informative - it explained the Berlin subway carriages I saw in Pyongyang's subway in a recent documentary! Any book that can complement other material is worth the price! Bon travail, Guy!