This year has already seen a spate of books about the situation in North Korea—including Jasper Becker’s Rogue Regime, Roland Bleiker’s Divided Korea, and Bradley K. Martin’s massive Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader—but the one you’ll actually read is Pyongyang, Guy Delisle’s slim nonfiction graphic novel.
Delisle, a Quebec-born, France-based animator, totes Orwell’s 1984 and an illegal portable radio into the world’s most hermetic country, where he spends two months overseeing the production of a kids’ cartoon. (The use of South Korean animators for Western shows is well-known—The Simpsons being the prime example—but the practice of further, cheaper subcontracting to the north has been an industry secret.)
But Delisle has a side project: this book. With a delicate pencil and a droll, occasionally outraged sensibility, he captures the inanities and insanities of Pyongyang, a “model city” where the “complete absence of handicapped people” is explained away by his translator, who credulously asserts, “All North Koreans are born strong, intelligent and healthy.” Delisle is at once fantastically isolated—living on the only inhabited floor of a hotel situated on an island—and perpetually connected. A translator shadows him, turning down simple requests for visits (to the train station, to the photocopy room) and instead taking him on an endless tour of sites dedicated to North Korea’s late founder, Kim Il Sung, and his son and the country’s current leader, Kim Jong Il. In a particularly fine detail, Delisle notes that the portraits of the Kims, which hang in every room in the country, “have a wider edge above than below”—thus appearing to loom over the viewer while keeping free of glare. Big Brothers are watching him.
Observing that the omnipresent portraits show the Kims wearing the regulation portrait pins (every North Korean wears a picture of either Kim senior, junior, or both), Delisle imagines a “short circuit”—the kind of sequence “animators love”—in which Kim Il Sung wears a pin depicting his son . . . who wears a pin depicting his father . . . and so on, ad infinitum. (A perfect
Pyongyang short circuit would involve Delisle’s book being turned into a movie—and getting animated in North Korea.) The vertiginous zoom-ins are just one example of Delisle’s limber style, which he adapts to suit memoiristic passages, flights of fancy, and pure information. It’s a master class in the medium’s narrative possibilities.
Delisle’s experience of North Korea’s regimented desperation ranges from the absurd to the nightmarish. Sick of the dwindling meal choices at “Restaurant No. 1” and “Restaurant No. 2” (their actual names), Delisle and some Western colleagues enthusiastically greet the reopening of “Restaurant No. 3,” only to discover that its menu derives from No. 1’s—and you couldn’t invent a bleaker dish than its seeming specialty, the “carrot salad.”
A journey through the streets after 10 p.m. reveals a desolate cityscape, dark save for car headlights and the kliegs trained on monuments to the late Great Leader, with straggling pedestrians trudging like zombies in the gloom. It’s a perfect scene for Delisle’s shadowy palette. The only time his gray scale fails him is the lavish subway system, with “tunnels lit up like Las Vegas”; for full-force glimpses of these underground stations in full color, watch Daniel Gordon’s N.K. doc A State of Mind, or check out Jane Portal’s vibrantly plated Art Under Control in North Korea, just out from Reaktion Books.
At times Delisle can barely contain himself as he listens to his keepers prattle on about the greatness of their country and the wisdom of its leaders, while empathizing with their human plight (in a secondhand anecdote, a guard “go[es] to pieces” when his charge plays hooky—it’s a jaunt for the Westerner, but the native’s fate could be fatal). He avoids easy condescension, but doesn’t hesitate to stick it to the regime.
The supreme irony of making cartoons for kiddies in the bleakest of locales is not lost on Delisle. He thanks his animators for their hard work, which will “[allow] parents in our capitalist society to sleep in while their kids stay glued to the TV.” Toggling from North Korean bizarreries to his profession’s subculture makes for unpredictable resonances. In one panel, Delisle spells out obvious instructions to his culturally dissimilar illustrators, and in the process conveys both his workaday frustration and something more ominous: “When the father finds out the children are lost, he should not be smiling.”