Book Review – Pyong Yang: a Journey in North Korea

May 7, 2012

Book Reviews, Reviews

After reading 1984, the thought of a government with such an intense level of control seems fearsome and almost unrealistic. However, the environment in North Korea is frighteningly similar. In Guy Delisle’s graphic novel, Pyongyang; a Journey in North Korea, Delisle recounts his two-month stay in a city where life is quite different than the normality of home.

This graphic novel begins as Delisle arrives in Korea, and a prompt search through his luggage hints that the way of life in Pyongyang will not be what he is used to. The economic and political state of Korea seems to be very obvious to Delisle, yet the population of the city seems none the wiser. A constant stream of praise for Kim Il Sung and Kim Jung Il comes from every direction: posters, pins, TV shows, and the words of the citizens. Yet what strikes him most is the undying belief behind these statements when living conditions are so clearly poor.

Claims of books the Kims have written, paintings they have crafted, and battles they have won cross the locals as nothing but the truth about their great leaders. Magnificent buildings line the empty streets, but this is only found in the visitor-approved areas of Pyongyang. On one block Delisle is lead to a performance of Koreas’ promising, healthy-looking youth at The Children’s’ Palace while on another block residents are quite literally starving to death.

The book targets an audience that sees North Korea from a Western perspective. Subtle humour about Delisle’s disbelief regarding the state of the city appears throughout the book, helping the reader understand and appreciate the contrast between our societies. His illustrations take you through his trip in a very personal way, as each panel is carefully and successfully manipulated to reflect the mood of the situation. The reader is smoothly guided through his experiences as he utilises his wit and artistic skill to raise questions about a country quite unlike our own. The use of illustrations in the context of a serious subject gives the book a quality that has not been given to many others. Delisle shows us a more hands-on experience of Pyongyang than most of us will ever experience, and although his book gives us an idea of the issues in North Korea, it is frightening to think that there is so much more that he, as a foreigner, was not exposed to.

This novel is an enjoyable read, and is unlike many books around these days. Guy Delisle’s illustrations keep the reader captivated while exploring a censored version of Pyongyang. Between the humour and the saddening truth, this graphic novel successfully gives those who cannot experience North Korea an idea of the blind loyalty of the people, the severity of their economic crisis, and a taste of incredible levels of denial. Pyongyang; a Journey in North Korea is truthful yet almost inconceivable as it delves into a way of life that, hopefully, none of us will ever know.

Mary Saunders, Grade 12

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