Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

For the past two nights I have had dreams about North Korea. I don’t recall ever having had a recurring dream. I never dreamt about the North during the early part of this year when I read one book after another about the DPRK. You’d think that with my recent D. H. Lawrence kick I’d be dreaming about early twentieth-century coal-mining English towns and men with full and trim beards. I wonder what tonight’s dream will be about, considering I have just finished Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, a graphic novel by Guy Delisle (translated by Helge Dascher). Pyongyang is the first work of graphic fiction I have read. It is classed as a novel but it reflects Delisle’s own two-month stay in the North Korean capital where he worked for a French animation company.

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. Because the paper was so thick, the book was as large as Women in Love which counted 541 pages on onionskin 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. 

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