Posted by: Graeme McMillan on April 3, 2007
If ever there was a back-cover blurb to strike fear into the heart of the average reader, it’s probably going to be one that starts “Guy Delisle is a wry 37-year-old French Canadian cartoonist…” Not, I should immediately add, that I have anything against Mr. Delisle himself, as you’re just about to read. But there’s just something so matter-of-fact and dry about that opening that your average – if you will – “punter” will read it and more than likely think “Wow, that sounds like something I’d avoid on NPR” and go on to the latest issue of Tarot or something to make fun of it. And that’s a shame, because PYONGYANG: A JOURNEY IN NORTH KOREA is Excellent.
(A small aside, though, about that NPR line above. I was listening to This American Life the other week, and Ira Glass talked about hearing Summer Roberts from The OC describe his show as “that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are,” and if I didn’t already love This American Life, Glass’s reaction would’ve sealed the deal for me: “I had this experience [after hearing that] where I was like, it was like having fictional characters from the Fox network saying… They said my name… And, like, did that just happen? It was totally just like, Is this on everybody’s TiVo?” Arune, if you haven’t heard this episode, you have to track it down – Glass then talks about his OC fandom (And I feel completely vindicated for loving the show, now; Ira Glass likes it, you snarky bastards) and admits that not only did he and his wife sing the theme song every week, but he also cried during the last episode. It’s almost enough to make me sign up for Showtime to see the new TV version of TAL, I’m telling you.)
(Anyway, back to Pyongyang.)
It’s not that there’s anything wrong about that clinical back-cover blurb, as such – certainly, it’s factually correct – it’s just that there’s so much more to the book than the just-the-facts presentation that the blurb provides. Yes, Delisle does “depict [the] sojourns into the heart of isolation” of working in North Korea as an animation producer while living in “‘cold and soulless’ hotel rooms where he suffers the usual maladies of the long-term boarder,” but it’s the way in which he does that that makes the book so special, so worth reading. Delisle’s is both present and absent from the book, giving the book warmth and humor without overpowering the experience of the alien culture to the point where all you can perceive are his perceptions. He gives his opinion full rein on the people that he meets, and even on his work experience in North Korea, but allows the reader to make up their own minds when it comes to the oppressive regime of “the world’s only Communist dynasty,” as he calls it in a throwaway gag midway through the book. It’s a skillful mix of reportage and memoir, each balanced perfectly against each other in a way that humanizes the reportage and legitimizes the memoir, if that makes sense – There are two pages towards the end of the book where another cartoonist takes over to tell one of their own experiences, because it adds to Delisle’s own experience and also to his own fears and expectations of North Korea itself (perhaps going so far as to fulfill his fears). Going from those pages back to his own, the next line of dialogue is the perfect “It’s always interesting to get another perspective on things!” which may be Delisle’s guiding principle in the creation of this book.
The art also follows the same principle: Abstracted and cartoony enough so as to allow interpretation, but not so much as to genericize everything. For want of a better way of putting it, Delisle makes himself very French – a particularly European-looking cartoon for reasons I couldn’t really explain coherently (It’s something about the angles, and the nose in particular) – which helps him stand out against the more detailed Koreans he encounters. The greyscale wash adds weight (both visual and dramatic) to the simple linework, and the whole thing works in unison with the writing, invisible in the best way in service of the overall story.
It’s a wonderful book, and highly recommended – I picked up my copy second-hand at Green Apple this weekend on one of my traditional “I have trade-in credit, so feel as if I can take a bit more of a chance on what I’m buying” visits, but as soon as I’d finished it, I immediately wanted to read Delisle’s second travelogue, Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China even at full-price. And when you’re as cheap as me, that means a lot.