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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.
The book deals mainly with how frustrating life is in the capital, even for a privileged foreigner like him: bad food, constant surveillance, blaring propanda songs, etc.
It's probably most affecting when you get a real sense of the inner lives of his guide and translator. Both are very buttoned-up, proper and repressed. At one point Delisle lends one of them his copy of "1984"; when the guy returns it a week later he seems very nervous and mutters something about how he "doesn't like science fiction." On the other hand, he rejoices when he gets a bottle of Hennessy as a going-away present.
In the most terrifying episode Delisle asks his guide where all the handicapped people are in Pyongyang, and the guide responds that there aren't any handicapped people in North Korea. Yikes!
Highly recommended to any fan of first-person graphic journalism.
Delisle is sent to North Korea as an animator whose expertise as an animator is valued by the North Koreans. In the process, he learns how things work or don't work in this stark country. He sees and subtly critiques a country where massive buildings go unfinished, highways are without exit ramps, and airports and restaurants are without lights. Delisle's wry humor emerges throughout the story, including telling jokes that are above the heads of his humorless "Comrade Guide" and "Comrade Translator" and his habit of throwing paper airplanes out of his 15th floor hotel window. He shows the grim reality of decades of extreme Communism by depicting the monotony of having only one radio station to listen to, being surrounded by ubiquitous statues and images of dictators Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, and choosing from a rather bland selection of restaurants and food.
In an ironic motif throughout the story, he carries around a copy of Orwell's 1984 that he brought with him and eventually gives to his unsuspecting guide. The reader is constantly reminded of connections between the society Orwell describes in his dystopian classic and the realities of life in present day North Korea. It makes the reader wonder if Delisle's reflections are a foreshadowing of the future (as predicted in 1984) or a window into a dying outpost of Communist totalitarian rule.
Even when Delisle questions the inconsistencies of his host country, he maintains not only a sense of humor but he also shows compassion to the local citizens with whom he comes in contact: his guides, the other animators, the restaurant workers, his translator. One gets the feeling that his purpose in telling this story about such a misunderstood country is to expand our understanding of it. He does this with quirky details that give it credibility and he does it by placing himself in the center of the narrative so that he can capture the range of emotions of a confused Westerner living in Pyongyang.
Delisle's balance of critique and empathy make Pyonyang a compelling and memorable read. It complements nicely his other two graphic novels: Burma Chronicles and Shenzen: A Travelogue from China.