I don’t normally read memoirs, but I’m finding that I really love to read political or journalistic memoirs when they are in graphic novel form. They are a fast read, and I learn so much about a different country’s political situation in a new perspective. I love that I can see the country via a comic. Of course, the danger of reading a political memoir is that it is obviously skewed toward one person’s perspective: I cannot see the entire picture.
In the case of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, Guy Delisle’s perspective may be one of the few such memoirs of a visit to North Korea. Although I knew that North Korea was a communist nation, the facts that Delisle shares of his two months working there are quite astonishing. It’s hard to believe that such a dystopian country exists contemporary to my own. For the less ignorant, Pyongyang won’t be a shock. Regardless, the comic reads like a novel, and I’m glad for the glimpse into a world I didn’t quite know existed as such.
I wondered a little bit, as I read, if Delisle had this book in mind when he began his trip. The novel he decides to bring with him is George Orwell’s 1984, and he seems to seek out edgy things to say and do. Yet, maybe it was hard not to. Pyongyang the city had no entertainment and as a new visitor, I’m sure I’d likewise be clueless. Before reading this, I didn’t realize that Orwell’s 1984 was a reality in a nation on the earth.
The similarities between 1984 and the North Korean world Delisle portrays are striking. Here are just a few things that seemed right out of Orwell:
- Pictures of Big Brother on the walls (i.e., Kim and Kim Jr.).
- “Volunteers” cutting the grass with a sickle.
- Restaurants named with numbers.
- A classroom of cookie cutter children playing the accordion perfectly (as depicted on the cover).
- The lack of entertainment.
- The lack of contact with the rest of the world.
- The sense of country-worship Delisle’s guides obviously express.
- The lack of any disabled people.
- The fact that everyone informs on everyone else as “spies.”
It was rather scary and certainly uncomfortable. This is today. This is not a dystopian novel!
Although the political situation was uncomfortable, the graphic novel as a whole was actually quite funny. Delisle was bored, so he found things to do. And he had some great discussions with his guide and his translator. I loved the scene where he asked his translator what he thought of the novel he’d lent him (1984). Oh my, did that man hurry to return the novel. “I don’t like science fiction!” he exclaimed, sweating profusely. I do wonder, though, if North Korean authorities are going to find that man and make him pay for that simple appearance in this novel (similar to the aftermath of newspaper photos of Tiannaman Square). It worried me.
In the end, it was a great read. I learned about the world but I also was entertained. I enjoyed the artwork too. It helped me see this world that seems to foreign from my own.