Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

“It was a laugh riot” is not something you expect to hear yourself say when referring to a book about North Korea. But Guy Delisle’s comic book account of working for two months as an animator in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is a delightful romp with appropriate bits of sadness and seriousness.

Only the privileged North Koreans who demonstrate their devotion to the Dear Leader by snitching on their neighbors get to live in Pyongyang. Guy Delisle notes the fear people live with on a daily basis. His hotel, which is eerily empty except for a few other foreigners, is on an island. Delisle is not permitted to speak to North Koreans or go anywhere without his guide, but when he bravely sneaks out to wander the streets, he is astonished by people’s indifference to his presence. They barely glance at him, perhaps out of fear that they will be corrupted by his western wickedness or that they might be accused of conspiring with the enemy.

Delisle brings his copy of 1984, which he loans to his guide just to see his response. His brazen rebelliousness is really shocking at times. He sings Bob Marley, makes sarcastic remarks about the Dear Leader, and does not condemn Americans during a discussion on how evil Americans are. He drags his feet through all the propaganda museums and museums dedicated to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and when he’s asked to write in the guest book about the wonders of one of the museums, he writes, “I’ve never walked down longer hallways in all my life.”

The scariest part is when Guy Delisle inquires about the absence of handicapped people and his guide responds that North Korea has no handicapped people. He balances these terrifying revelations with the ridiculous restrictions in North Korea, such as women being forbidden to ride bicycles because it would be “hazardous.” Therefore, women are only allowed to ride tricycles.

Humor is a gift and finding humor in depressing situations is a rare gift. I’m not sure how I feel about laughing at a book about North Korea. I feel slightly ashamed, but nevertheless, I highly recommend this book.

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