Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea – Guy Delisle

It’s been six years since I read Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles and was ambivalent about it. When picking up a selection of graphic novels at the library recently, I decided it was time I gave him another chance and borrowed Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, since North Korea is interesting. I sort of regret it now, but I won’t give him the benefit of the doubt again. Because all the stuff that bothered me in the Burma Chronicles bothered me even more in Pyongyang, and it was joined by a casual racism (calling the performing children “savant monkeys”!) and blatant misogony that completely undermines any point Delisle may have had to make. I mean, who recounts a series of torture techniques in drawing and writing and then writes this down and thinks, “Yeah, that’s the vibe I’m going with”?

Delisle arrives in North Korea for a six week stay, supervising the production of cartoons his employer has outsourced for cheap labour. The sequences where Deslisle tries to explain why a scene needs to be redone affirms my impression that outsourcing creates so much more labour that you would be lucky to actually save any money, but that is not something Deslisle addresses (or: if addressing it was his intention, it gets lost along the way). He seems instead to use the examples purely to reinforce the image of the North Koreans as intellectually inferior, which permeats the whole narrative.

You’d think an intelligent man would consider whether the reason the North Koreans he talks to never criticise the regime they are living in is simple caution and life-preserving instinct, but instead he seems to think that they are… stupid? Brain-washed enough to actually believe the propaganda they feed him? And like in the Burma Chronicles he doesn’t seem to consider that he may be putting others at risk with his behaviour. He gives 1984 to one of his guides to read, for example, as if for a social experiment. Now, I have noe idea whether 1984 is a banned book in North Korea, but it wouldn’t exactly surprise me if it were, and what exactly happens to people caught with banned books in authoritarian regimes, again?

It’s a pity, too, because I still really like Delisle’s drawing style and there are definitely some great scenes in the book, too. He finds himself at a picnic on a trip to a museum:

The moment touches on something that is not only quite charming, but possibly quite profound, too. But it flickers out again and descends into “white tourist mode” again.

I could have saved myself the trouble had I bothered to read the reviews on Goodreads before starting the book, so if you’d like more examples, go have a nosey. I’m hardly the only one who’ve ended up wanting to throw the book across the room, it seems.

Boka har jeg lånt på biblioteket.

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