Pyongyang, Guy Delisle

I first heard about Guy Delisle over at A Life in Books, when Lesley reviewed Pyongyang, and since then it seems he’s been popping up all over the place.  Delisle writes travelogues in comics form of the time he has spent living in countries with oppressive regimes, which is a slightly weird thing to be known for, but never mind.  Pyongyang chronicles Delisle’s two-month stay in North Korea, where he is supervising the animation of a children’s cartoon.

From the first page I loved Pyongyang.  Delisle starts by excerpting the travel information he’s received about going to North Korea.  “Do not do anything on your own,” says one of them, and indeed Delisle is not supposed to go anywhere without his guide.  The guide is responsible for ensuring that Delisle sees and hears the best of North Korea, and is always taking him to see monuments of Kim Jong-Il, or pointing out “volunteers” cleaning up roads or picking up trash.

Delisle has an excellent eye for small, chilling details of life in North Korea.  At one point he notes that only married men with children are permitted to travel outside of North Korea.  He leaves it at that, but the implication is obvious.  What creeped me out the most is when Delisle realizes he hasn’t seen any handicapped people since coming to North Korea.  He asks his guide, and the guide says there are none.  Everyone in North Korea is born strong and healthy and intelligent.

I always think it must be very difficult to end a travelogue.  The obvious ending to a travelogue is, And then I went home, but that’s not necessarily very satisfying, particularly if, as in Delisle’s case, you have been writing about some serious, important issues.  Pyongyang doesn’t just end, it has an ending.  Props, Guy Delisle.

I am afraid that Burma Chronicles will be unable to meet the standard set by Pyongyang, but so far it is also good.  Updates as warranted.  This review brought to you by the Graphic Novels Challenge!  Which I’d completely forgotten about, along with all my other challenges, until I noticed that someone else had read Pyongyang for the Graphic Novels Challenge, so I guess I cannot really say that this review was, in fact, brought to you by the Graphic Novels Challenge.  That reminds me, I bet some of the books I have read recently can go towards some of my other challenges, and I didn’t even notice.  Dear, dear, dear, I am plainly teetering on the edge of senility here.

Other people reviewed it too:

A Life in Books
A Striped Armchair
The Captive Reader
The Bookling
Helen’s Book Blog

Have I missed yours?  Tell me and I’ll add a link!

22 thoughts on “Pyongyang, Guy Delisle

  1. I used to know a guy named Donald DeLisle. He was older than me and used to tease me about being skinny. THAT WAS A BIG MISTAKE, Donald.

  2. What struck me most about this was what is said about there being no handicapped people. The implication is, of course, obvious but it reminded me of a friend who came back from a six month spell in a Brazilian University very distressed by the number of handicapped people who were begging on the streets there. He’d been told ( and I have no way of knowing if this is true) that many of them would have deliberately injured themselves so that they would be able to beg, having no other way of making a living.

    • I’ve heard of that before, though in Brazil rather than India. I think from some of Salman Rushdie’s books, although it also reminds me (now that I’m thinking about it) that they had something similar in Slumdog Millionaire. Except, evil adults deliberately injuring poor little children.

    • It is quite horrifying, but not the greatest glimpse of what life is like in North Korea. Delisle is carefully kept away from seeing anything that might reflect poorly on the country and its governance. But give it a try anyway! It’s very good.

  3. I’m STILL waiting for my library to get a copy of his Burma book in! *pouts*

    If you’re in the mood for more North Korea, I rad a great book last month, Nothing to Envy, about its recent history through the eyes of different North Koreans now living in S Korea.

    • THAT sounds very interesting. I loved Pyongyang, but it made me wonder very much what the North Koreans were thinking. By necessity they were concealing their true thoughts from Delisle and the other Westerners, so you only get the most circuitous glimpse of their lives.

      I hope your library gets the book in soon!

  4. Wow. This sounds like a great book with a lot of haunting aspects in it’s story, and like something that I would really like a lot. Since I only know the basics about North Korea, the book would probably teach me a lot as well. Great review. I will be on the lookout for this book!

    • It’s superb, and very likeable – Delisle’s a keen and witty observer. It doesn’t teach you as much as you might think about North Korea though, just shows you (very, very clearly) what the North Korean leader wants other countries to think about North Korea. Which is fascinating too, of course!

  5. I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Burma Chronicles so I’m glad you liked Pyongyang so much! It’s very difficult for me to find, though, so hopefully I come across it soon.

    • The book made me curious to learn more about North Korea – obviously Delisle barely scratched the surface of the country in the two (heavily supervised) months he was there. It’s a great read. :)

    • It is! I’m only sad the public library here doesn’t have his other book, the one set in China. But I’ve just got my university library card today, and I think they’ll have it. YAY.

  6. Believe it or not, I just received Pyongyang in my mailbox yesterday! I’ve been wanting to read Delisle’s books forever, but my libraries don’t have them, so I succumbed and bought one! Can’t wait to read it!

    • How fun! It’s always more fun getting books in the mail. :) And having read Burma Chronicles, I think Pyongyang was a good choice, well worth the money!

  7. I must get this. North Korea makes me sad. I have to admit I feel sorrier for some unfortunate countries than others. It’s my reading: for some reason *all* the books I’ve read by Koreans or Americans of Korean descent (not that it’s a huge number) were phenomenally good. Have you had that experience? Feeling a connection with a culture just because you’ve read good books out of it? The descriptions of scenery in North Korea make it sound like a wintry heaven. I guess the place you can’t go back to gets something of heaven about it. Oh, and a lot of my very favorite garden plants are species imported from Korea. A country that produces sensitive writers, beautiful forests and mountains, and fascinating plants–I guess that would be my heaven, too.

    • North Korea might not be exactly your heaven, if Delisle’s depiction of it is accurate. But I so know what you mean! I feel that way about Iran, I always want to read more Iranian literature.

    • Hahaha, I always have that same response when people give particular praise to the end of a book they’ve read. And then I get the book and read the ending before I’ve even read the beginning. This one’s not, you know, a smash-bang sort of ending, or a twist, or anything. It impressed me particularly because I know ending travel books must be madly difficult.

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