Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

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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.

Reviewed on June 22, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

    • Heather J., I thought that would be the case, but I’m a visual learner so I actually have found reading comics to be a nice compliment to my visual preference. If you want to learn about how comics work, read UNDERSTANDING COMICS. It is so awesome and gave me a great perspective of the medium for novels, memoirs, etc.

    • Valerie, he’s Canadian. He was working with a French company, heading the cartooning department for two months. The book was originally written in French; I read it in translation.

  • Whenever I read non-fiction history I always feel like I’m just getting a small piece of the puzzle, and always want to read much more, but I’ve accepted that it’s just impossible unless I wanted to devote my study to one subject. So I just try to enjoy the little exposure I’m getting.
    This sounds very intriguing! I’ve always wanted to learn more about North Korea–it’s such a mind-boggling country.
    .-= Shelley´s last post on blog ..The Happy Homemaker’s Guide to Audiobooks =-.

    • Shelley, that’s why I like graphic novel memoirs — it’s not too much. Sometimes I get bored with full length very long accounts of nonfiction because even then it’s just a piece of the puzzle. I do hope you read this — it’s an experience!

  • I just received my order for this book! I went to South Korea 2 years ago and have heard about the state of North Korea a fair bit, so I can’t wait to read this graphic novel, which is probably the only book set in North Korea. (I never know any other books)
    .-= mee´s last post on blog ..To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee =-.

    • Suzanne, knowing your interest in all things relating to Holocaust stories, I think you’d love the graphic novel THE COMPLETE MAUS. It’s a really powerful one and a great introduction to graphic novels as a format.

  • I don’t think reading a book like this would ever have occurred to me had I not read your review. I read a couple graphic novels while studying for my M.A. (for a young adult literature course), and liked those, but for whatever reason I just haven’t gotten back to them again. Guess I’ve just been too busy with more traditional prose. Now I wonder what’s out there that I’m missing.
    .-= Lisa Guidarini´s last post on blog ..Tally ho, all! =-.

    • Lisa, I was quite suspicious of graphic novels/comics but I have found that there are comics in every genre. I liked THE COMPLETE MAUS (did you read that for your YA lit course?) and for nonfiction UNDERSTANDING COMICS is a great look at the format as a whole. I hope you find some you enjoy!

    • Kim, I think I saw your review of the Burma one and it reminded me of this one my list! I know nothing about Burma so I should check that one out too! I hope you enjoy this look at N Korea

  • This review has sold me on buying this book. North Korea really is a study in a real live dystopia… Thanks!

    Dystopian Journal

  • I kept worrying about Delisle – you’re right, he did seem to be going out of his way to be a troublemaker. I was afraid he was going to get himself in trouble with the scary police people, or worse, get his guides into trouble. But I still thought it was a wonderful book. 🙂
    .-= Jenny´s last post on blog ..Review: Day of Tears, Julius Lester =-.

  • This sounds very interesting. I’ve never read a graphic novel for “adults” (that is, not manga), but the dystopian genre is one of my favorites, so I’ll definitely pick this up. I know pretty much nothing about North Korea so I’m sure I’ll learn something. I just checked and my library has a copy. Thanks for the review.
    .-= teachergirl´s last post on blog ..The Education of Bet =-.

    • teachergirl, I’ve never read a manga but I have found that I enjoy graphic novels. Are manga ever nonfiction? I tend to enjoy graphic novels a lot in nonfiction.

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