January 2006

Elizabeth Kiem

nonfiction

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

Famine, repression, and mind-numbing homogeneity aside, North Korea still sparks longing among an odd segment of Western society. Since perestroika and the Buena Vista Social Club sprung their geniis, it’s all that’s left of the once boundless and bottomless mystery called Communist dictatorship, and an untoward number of curious denizens of the free world now pine for Pyongyang.

It’s a good deal easier to satisfy this perverse taste for grim surrealism if you aren’t American. Though even the Europeans, who run eleven of the twelve NGO’s in the isolated pariah state, are being dismissed as of December 31, 2005. It’s unclear whether or not the eviction will extend to French animators, who, apparently, have been treating the North Korean capital as their Toronto for some time.

Who knew?

This well-kept industry secret has been blown by Guy Delisle, the cartoonist who brought us Shenzhen, an account of an animator overseeing production in China. His new book, Pyongyang offers the same spare illustration and wry interpretation of an impossibly foreign culture, but with a blacker comedy and a much higher arched eyebrow.

Pyongyang is subtitled “A Journey in North Korea,” which is a bit of an exaggeration. Delisle is trotted off to official destinations by his handlers (the museum of the friendship of the nations, in which diplomatic gifts to the “eternal president” Kim Il Sung are displayed in cavernous rooms where visitors must wear slippers, is the best portrayed), but his two month stay in Pyongyang is characterized best by the monotony of life in a glass jar. He wiles away the hours flying paper airplanes from his 15th story hotel room, itself an exercise in concentric perimeters of isolation, and in walking the destitute streets from one permitted zone to another. “Spicing it up” in the context of a prolonged stay in Pyongyang by a foreigner consists of dining in Restaurant 3 rather than Restaurant 1.

Delisle’s account is consistently hilarious, though at times the joke is quite literally on the few Koreans with whom he is in daily contact. In one scene, Delisle and a French colleague break out an impromptu rap all about their ubiquitous guide, with the refrain “Cap-tain Sin… He’s our power magnified!” They crack themselves up and the reader too, since we’re in on the joke, while the unfortunate Sin sits stony-faced.

At first read, Pyongyang is a page-turner, a perfect blend of anecdote, reflection and pitch-perfect atmospherics. (It may be a presumptuous claim when made about a place so fiercely protected from outside perceptions that it redefines the phrase “rarefied atmosphere.” Nonetheless, for anyone who has experienced vestiges of Soviet life or looked upon monuments of any brand of megalomania, Deslisle’s landscapes, both urban and lobby will evoke a visceral understanding).

At second read, more and more of Delisle’s scenes, which have the artistic nuance of diluted Ted Rall, are better than just entertaining. This is a graphic novel so well crafted that the text begins to work as secondary illustration: propaganda begins to flow freely from each cell, like the canned music and broadcast exhortations that trail into the 15th floor hotel rooms; a small frame exchange between Delisle and his handlers perfectly sets up a full-page illustration of the dialogue’s own irony.

Pyongyang is the heart of a regime which daily engages in self-mutilation along its perimeters. The country’s other internal organ is a gulag which send millions to an early grave. Rendering the irony of the self-proclaimed paradise digestible is no easy task. Guy Delisle has admirably packaged the pathos and perversity inherent in the victimized society. He has pulled out his snapshots and recommended, sadly, that we rethink our fascination.

Pyongyang by Guy Delisle
Drawn & Quarterly
ISBN: 1896597890
184 Pages