Book Review – Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

Book Review – Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

The job of the travel writer is to break beneath the surface of a country, illuminating those corners that a guide book can’t reach by capturing the essence of a place through observation, anecdote and interaction with the locals. So if you’re in a place where it’s hard to even leave your hotel, and meeting the local inhabitants is nigh on impossible, you’ve got your work cut out. Yet, somehow, Guy Delisle has managed to achieve something close to it, with this wryly amusing graphic travelogue about his time in North Korea.

A cartoonist by trade, Delisle found himself in this most secretive of nations as part of his responsibilities working for a French film studio. Naturally, though, the bulk of the narrative isn’t dedicated to that aspect of his time in country. Rather, it focuses on his attempts to explore a country where a curfew means the streets of Pyongyang are deserted at night, and he is obliged to have a guide/translator with him whenever he leaves his hotel.

Of course, you don’t need to necessarily be on a professional assignment to visit North Korea, but even if you were visiting purely for pleasure, you’d still be subjected to the same restrictions he was!

Delisle’s droll narrative and austere artistic style complement each other to good effect. For instance, he effectively silhouettes the people in Pyongyang airport to reproduce the darkened visuals of its no-lights interior. His artistic style also serves him well when he illustrates, in his words, the ‘very clean’ streets of Pyongyang, which have ‘no loitering, no old folks chatting’ and are the very definition of ‘total sterility’.

71ph19tdy0lAs far as the narrative thread goes, Pyongyang reads like a loosely connected series of vignettes as opposed to one grand story. As mentioned before, he wasn’t able to really interact with the locals, but that in itself allows him to give a fascinating insight in to the psyche of this unique country. Those North Koreans he does spend meaningful amounts of time with unsurprisingly tow the party line of singing the praises of their ‘dear leader’, and everyone else is eerily ‘happy’ too.

This may come as no surprise, but even when he’s stuck in a van with his guides singing Kim Jong-Il praising hymns at full volume, or being compelled to bow to a grand statue of the ‘dear leader’ (and fighting hard to stifle a smirk in so doing), you get an appreciation of just what a surreal and disturbing place North Korea is. Shackled as he is by his circumstances, you have to admire Delisle when he commits minor acts of rebellion against the procedure all visitors are required to submit themselves to. How many of us would do the same?

North Korea, even for those of us who have managed to set foot on its soil, will doubtless remain an enigmatic country that will carefully stage manage the experience of all who visit it. That this thoroughly readable, informative and entertaining graphic travelogue is able to provide a little more insight than most of us would gain makes for a fascinating read.

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10 Comments

  • Christine K

    October 24, 2016 at 9:05 pm Reply

    Wow. One has to admire the attempt to try to shed any light on what really goes on in North Korea. Also, it must have been difficult to have been so restricted. Based on your review, I’d love to read this book. Thanks for the insight.
    Christine K recently posted…Should You Join the UK Trusted Traveler Program?My Profile

    • Joe

      October 24, 2016 at 9:34 pm Reply

      You’re welcome, and I can definitely recommend it. He does a great job of conveying his sense of claustrophobia, and that comes from his excellent depiction of Pyongyang itself as much as anything…

  • Tarah Vongbouthdy

    October 25, 2016 at 12:39 am Reply

    Sounds like a good book! Not one that I would normally pick so its good to have some variety!
    Tarah Vongbouthdy recently posted…Travel Hack: Finding Cheap FlightsMy Profile

    • Joe

      October 25, 2016 at 6:30 am Reply

      Sometimes the books we least expect to enjoy can surprise us 🙂

  • Stacey

    October 25, 2016 at 9:28 am Reply

    Living in South Korea and being just so close but oh so far from North Korea is very interesting. I’ve visited the DMZ twice, watch the news station devoted to North Korea and listen to both the older locals talk about their relatives across the border and the war… that is still technically going on and the youth who have no idea of pre war Korea and spend their days shopping and don’t all appreciate being protected from northern aggression.

    • Joe

      October 25, 2016 at 5:18 pm Reply

      Wow…that must be quite alarming, the level of ignorance of some of the younger generation, especially when they’re next to such a volatile and unpredictable country. The news station must make for very interesting viewing to say the least! Thanks for adding your own experiences to this post 🙂

  • Shane

    October 26, 2016 at 1:54 pm Reply

    Sounds like a quirky read, sure to delight! I agree that a travel writer has a tricky job in countries such as this. I would love to visit North Korea one day myself

    • Joe

      October 26, 2016 at 5:04 pm Reply

      Yep, me too! Would be an experience like no other…

  • Kevin Wagar

    October 26, 2016 at 2:34 pm Reply

    Fantastic artwork. I’m fascinated by travel in North Korea. I’m desperate to see past the veil that the state places over the country and get even the tiniest glimpse of what life in the country is truly like.
    Kevin Wagar recently posted…Iceland’s Amazing Latrabjarg Puffin CliffsMy Profile

    • Joe

      October 26, 2016 at 5:05 pm Reply

      As this books suggests I imagine it would be extremely difficult…but not impossible. It’s a case of picking your right moment and sticking your neck out a bit, probably!

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