17 Mar / Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle, translated by Helge Dascher
In another century, travelers wrote a few postcards. Today’s modern wanderer might send group emails or abbreviated texts; the more techno-savvy might start a blog and instantly upload the pictures from those tiny devices. The really ambitious write essays and even books. Guy Delisle (thank goodness!) creates unique and fantastic graphic memoirs.
His temporary animation production gig in China became Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China. A few years later, another Asian animation assignment became Pyongyang.
More recently, given his seemingly portable creative career, French Canadian Delisle works while accompanying his peripatetic wife on her far-flung posts with Médecins San Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). He apparently wrote Pyongyang, for example, stationed in Ethiopia, then went exploring in The Burma Chronicles. Sometime in the near future, surely the family’s year in Jerusalem will debut in a graphic rendition …? Please?
But back to the most northern ‘Axis of Evil,’ where Delisle spent two isolated, controlled months, sent by his French animation employer to oversee current projects with North Korea’s Scientific and Educational Film Studio of Korea (SEK). At the airport, he ironically manages to hold on to his copy of George Orwell’s 1984 by explaining through a sweaty smile that it’s “old … classic … fiction.” Surviving his entry, he is met by his guide and the waiting driver who will be his near-constant companions throughout his guarded stay. His first stop is to visit (read: pay his respects to) the 22-meter tall bronze statue of country founder Kim Il-Sung who, as Delisle notes, “despite his death (1912-1994), is still president.”
Such blatant incongruency sets the tone for Delisle’s surreal experiences. His sharp observations, captured in his signature black-and-white simple line drawings, range from the ridiculous and tragic – overworked “volunteers” forced into menial, back-breaking work – to the blinded and haunting – immaculate streets empty of handicapped people because “all Koreans are born strong, intelligent and healthy,” the guide explains and seems to truly believe.
The disconnect – far beyond the usual East/West cultural divide – is mind-boggling between what Delisle is allowed to see and hear, and what he observes for himself. While his temporary foray into the “phantom city in a hermit nation” is gravely frustrating, it also proves to be deeply poignant … that final page as Delisle urges his latest paper airplane to “C’mon, go!” is a glimmer of hope for freedom in a land that time forgot …
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2005 (United States)