Monday, October 7, 2013

Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (2005)

::The Skinny::

Title: Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea

Written by:  Guy Delisle

Language:  English

Publication year:  2005.

Pages:  176 pages.

Price:  $9.96 at

In less than 30 words:  Though limited, a lovely travelogue of Pyongyang.

Reading List category:  North Korea

Keyword(s): Pyongyang, Graphic novel

Writing style:  Graphic novel with attractive style, witty and keen

Rating:  4 stars

::The Review::

In 2001, French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle traveled to North Korea for two months on a work visa to supervise the animation of a children's cartoon show, which was commissioned by a French animation studio. As he supervised a team of North Korean animators, Delisle experienced the terrible hotel, constant "companionship" of his handlers and a barrage of over-the-top propaganda typical of North Korea. Later, Delisle turned his experience into a graphic travelogue.

The content of the book is not particularly special. Although North Korea is very isolated, a small cohort of international tourists have visited Pyongyang and wrote about their experience. Delisle's account does not deviate much from their stories: they all experienced constant surveillance from their handlers, subpar accommodations and a steady stream of propaganda. More importantly, like most of the international visitors, Delisle did not get to travel freely into the more despair-inducing parts of North Korea.

Where Delisle's book shines, however, is the presentation. Because filming freely in North Korea is virtually impossible, Delisle's graphic travelogue provides an important means through which the reader can visualize Pyongyang. Delisle's drawings are attractive in their combination of minimalism and sharp eyes for details. In Delisle's skillful presentation, the reader can picture herself in Pyongyang in a way that she likely cannot do with written words.

In fact, even if filming was freely allowed in North Korea, Delisle's travel accounts would have added something new. His clever and witty manner of story telling, embedded in the keen but delicate representation of what he saw in Pyongyang, conveys real emotions at every turn: unease and creepiness, yet surprising humanity and empathy. No amount of film making, for example, would have properly conveyed the depressingly fake smiles of the little girls playing accordions en masse. Even when we hear the same joke, we laugh harder when the delivery is good.

The Bottom Line:  Read this book if you are not familiar with the standard North Korean travelogue, as Pyongyang may represent the best of them.

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