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’.
As 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.