Pyongyang by Guy Delisle

Kim Il-Sung is the Eternal Leader of North Korea, whose death ten years ago still can't stop him from holding the presidency

Book Review by Daniel Wood | 12 Dec 2006
Book title: Pyongyang
Author: Guy Delisle
In the years following his stay in Shenzhen, Guy Delisle took a new job as an animator in North Korea. His follow-up graphic novel Pyongyang chronicles his time in probably the most authoritarian country in the world, truly a galaxy away from China even though the two nations share a political system and a border. Under the rule of the irascible Kim Jong-Il, the citizens of North Korea must wear compulsory badges depicting either Kim himself or his beloved father and predecessor, Kim Il-Sung, the Eternal Leader of North Korea whose death ten years ago still can't stop him from holding the presidency; while the dead leader is further commemorated by a 22-metre high bronze sculpture that towers godlike over Pyongyang, and a life-sized wax replica in the national museum that inspires tears of joy in all the proud patriots who lovingly gaze upon him.

Needless to say, as in Shenzhen, Delisle's cultural isolation shapes his amusingly absurd impressions of his host country in Pyongyang. But this time the isolation has a sinister streak that will leave conflicted feelings about whether or not it's right to be amused at all. It's one thing when Kim Jong-Il reinvents himself as a master of the fine arts and issues a nationwide decree to supplement the Communist symbols of the hammer and sickle with the added symbol of an artist's paintbrush, but it's another, far more sinister thing when a tour guide happily informs Delisle that physical perfection is a congenital trait here, and that's why there are absolutely no disabled people anywhere, at any time, in Kim's glorious Communist utopia. Reading between the lines of these scenes is to see how the overbearing paranoia of Kim's dictatorship so completely deprives his people of any comfort in life that their despairing reality twists into an almost laughable dreamworld. One absurdity piles on top of another and another; and Delisle is left to just stand by and gawk at it all, as is the reader – mute and bewildered spectators fascinated by this cartoon nation, shaking heads in dismay, wondering how something so unashamedly ridiculous can actually be so chillingly real.
Release Date: Out now.
Published by Jonathan Cape. Cover Price £12.99 Paperback.