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Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
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July 2018: Dystopian > Pyongyang: a journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle - 4 stars

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Amy N. | 256 comments After seeing someone here review a book about Bolshevik Russia as a real-life dystopia, I was reminded of a book I read in college about North Korea. My husband served in South Korea twice during his stint in the army, so that subject is a little more near and dear to my heart now than it was then. Rereading it was an interesting experience. It's one of those books I remember pretty well despite having read it so long ago, but now I have more of a perspective on the hermit country, so some of his commentary makes a little more sense to me now.

The author is a cartoonist from Canada who worked for 2 months in North Korea on a kid's show and wrote a graphic novel about his experiences. He has a very irreverent sense of humor about the whole thing, which was doubtless an important coping mechanism at the time. He openly mocks the entire regime (and himself) throughout the whole book, pointing out the many little absurdities that inevitably come from living under oppression: those deemed more loyal or useful to the party are given more food than those who are less useful or deemed outright disloyal. In some places the electric lights are only on when foreign dignitaries are visiting. There are gigantic shells of half-built concrete buildings intended to showcase the glory of North Korea but never finished. Pictures of the great leader and his son are everywhere, their words are repeated constantly, the only music is insipid easy listening or hymns to the republic. At one point he gives a copy of 1984 to his translator, which always struck me as kind of a risky thing to do.

Speaking of his translator, he portrays the North Koreans he interacted with as real human beings under a lot of pressure in a dangerous situation, but also as ordinary people doing ordinary jobs. I think that was the thing that stuck out to me most on both readings: life in a dangerous dystopia is still life. People may disappear and you may be forced to use doublethink, but at the end of the day you have to do your job in order to get paid and feed your family. You go drinking with friends or watch TV. You read books and tell jokes. Just not jokes about the great leader.

Highly recommend this one if you like humor, travelogues, graphic novels, or are at all interested in the very timely subject of North Korea.


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Joi (missjoious) | 3809 comments Sounds really interesting.

Other "travel" related books from North Korea I've felt come off very condescending and rude, With jokes becoming crude instead of funny (My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth). How do you think the author draws this line? Obviously it is a graphic novel, and based in humor- so that will effect it.


Amy N. | 256 comments Joi wrote: "Sounds really interesting.

Other "travel" related books from North Korea I've felt come off very condescending and rude, With jokes becoming crude instead of funny..."


I would say it's not entirely free of condescension, but in this case I feel the author poked enough fun at himself that it leveled the playing field. Everything was subject to ridicule, so nothing felt singled out. Humor is one of those very personal things, so your mileage may vary.

Plus, minor spoilers, the very last image of the book is one that shows the author is quietly rooting for North Korea to free itself, and you can tell he grew a bit fond of the Koreans he met during his brief stay there.


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Joi (missjoious) | 3809 comments Totally makes sense, I think the "level playing field" is key to keep the humor and poking fun fair. You're right humor is super subjective. I've added this to my TBR in case the 'graphic novel' tag ever shows up again :)

Thanks!


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