Review: Guy Delisle – Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (2004)

I’ve read this graphic novel many times. It’s quite short – you can read the whole thing in three hours – and it is such a tragicomic travel story that it never fails to entertain me. 

Guy Delisle, a Canadian cartoonist and animator, has made a name for himself for drawing travel memoirs. Before his career as drawer of graphic novels, he worked in the Quebecois animation world and often had to travel to some far-off places for his work. Why is that? He explains in this book: for animation, the studio in Quebec draws only the key panels for cartoons, and most of the drawings to connect the animated movements between panels is outsourced to labour forces in Asian countries. So, Delisle was sent to North Korea as an animation supervisor, because a Korean group of workers was being paid in bags of rice to draw the in-between panels for the animations. 

Delisle naturally concluded that his experiences in North Korea provided excellent material for a graphic retelling, and he was in the drawing business already. His first travelogue in this spirit was actually Shenzhen (2003) and Pyongyang (2004) followed after. 

Look at reviews online and you’ll find some very angry people who find Delisle’s communication of his experiences in Pyongyang to be very racist, disrespectful and insufferable, but I think those people are exaggerating to win moral internet points. I do see that this story is written very much from the perspective of a single Western guy who is taking note of everything he finds strange and weird and disconcerting about being in North Korea, and making that a story of humour and cynicism. But it is not devoid of compassion, and not without noting the tension in people’s behaviour as a symptom of a sick society. And besides, if you have ever found yourself alone for a few months in a country whose culture is completely alien to you (and I have) then I can assure you that the experience will be impressed upon your memory for the rest of your life and that culture shock will be very real. And I see no reason not to laugh about some of those experiences. 

The tone of the story is one of bewilderment about everything he sees around him, interspersed with some personal notes about his day to day work, and dealing with his guides and interpreters, and trying to entertain himself for the months that he is locked away in a hotel for foreigners. For a while, there was a movie adaptation in the works that would start Steve Carell, and that is no wonder, because Delisle’s writing is full of little funny observations of his personal journey. He is not trying to write a perfectly considered representation of all the horrible consequences of the regime as some sort of educational graphic novel, but just a personal travel story of bumping into minute weirdness.

Keep in mind that this book is now 20 years old and the situation in North Korea has undoubtedly changed, although I don’t have the knowledge to say in what way. Traveling there in whatever capacity will not be like Delisle’s experience, and the travelogue is now a snapshot of a specific time for a specific person doing a specific job. But it is still worth reading. As a graphic novel it works perfectly, is well-told and entertaining all the way through.

The story of the novel ends without clear resolutions. It’s not that kind of tale. Delisle took to the habit of throwing paper airplanes out of his hotel window in some automatic emotional reaction against the extreme level of Big Brother control in the country. The freedom to go where you want and think and say what you want is represented by that paper airplane that never manages to fly free and escape. In the end we never learn if the people he encountered truly believed all the bullshit or where too scared to speak up. At least with the paper plane he feels free to cheer it on.

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19 Responses to Review: Guy Delisle – Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (2004)

  1. piotrek says:

    Non-fiction graphic novels are rare (or perhaps I’m just aware of few?) but can do really great job, it seems this one is quite interesting. I’m capable of passing my own moral judgements, so I think I would like this… adding to my list. I think I’ve seen his Jerusalem in a bookshop somewhere..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Non-fiction graphic novels are the best! Yeah this one and Jerusalem and the Burma Chronicles are his best known work. I am actually off to the comic store right now to buy those two. An other non-fiction graphic novel I enjoyed was of course Maus, and I have Persepolis on my shelf to pick up soon. The work of Joe Sacco also looks amazing. That is more journalistic graphic novels about the balkan wars for example.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bookstooge says:

    I enjoyed Maus quite a bit. And your description of other reviewers being outraged almost automatically makes me want to read it just to stuff a pie in their face 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d recommend it! It’s great fun! And I feel the same, the more outrage, the more I am interested in picking it up. I am getting real tired of people getting angry on other people’s behalf, just to make themselves feel good.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Andreas says:

    „in a country whose culture is completely alien to you (and I have)“
    Meaning you were to Germany? 🤣

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wakizashi33 says:

    This sounds fascinating. I’ve just ordered a copy. Cheers Jeroen.
    Oh, and I had no idea Holland was humid in the summer. Japan gets it too from mid June to August.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. bormgans says:

    I think I´ll order this too. North Korea really is a very interesting case study of what you can achieve as a totalitarian state with brainwashing etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. bormgans says:

    (And now that you mention humidity, Flanders can be quite humid too in the summer. But I guess not like The Philipines.)


  7. Ola G says:

    This looks very interesting! I think I’ll check if they have it in my library 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Review: Guy Delisle – Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China (2003) | A Sky of Books and Movies

  9. Pingback: Review: Guy Delisle – Burma Chronicles (2007) | A Sky of Books and Movies

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