Lately I’ve been very interested in books about North Korea. It’s a fascinating, secretive, and tragic country, and I’ve sought out books from a variety of perspectives: one by a defector, one by a Korean-American woman who taught high school English there, one by an American journalist.
So when I read about Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, I was excited to hear that it was another unique perspective: a travel memoir by a French filmmaker working on a project in the capital city. And what’s more, it was a graphic novel. A visual peek into North Korea! That’s something the other books couldn’t give me. (And the graphics were great.)
There is not much action in the book, but that comes with the territory. Delisle works in a big building in Pyongyang, lives in a hotel reserved for foreigners, and is escorted almost everywhere by his guide and his translator. He is not free to move about the city as he would like, but he does visit a couple of museums and landmarks (with his guide, of course) dedicated to the glory of North Korea and the Great Leader, and he also socializes at a night club for foreigners. Overall the book feels claustrophobic, because I imagine that’s how Delisle felt.
My issue with this book was really the constant scorn that came across in Delisle’s narration. I don’t mean his frustration with the situation–anyone would be frustrated and grumpy. But to me, Delisle comes across as quite racist, particularly in the passing remarks he makes about Chinese people. He also struck me as a bit misogynistic.
(For those who are interested, the others I’ve read are Under the Same Sky: A Memoir of Survival, Hope, and Faith by Joseph Kim; Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite by Suki Kim; and Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.)