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#46 [Apr. 16th, 2009|09:15 am]

100 COMICS TO READ BEFORE YOU DIE (or grow out of them)

(Drawn & Quarterly)

“Do not do anything on your own. Refer to your guide or your interpreter for advice in all situations.”

Pyongyang is an account of French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle’s time working at an animation studio in North Korea’s capital city; two months of living in a hotel and explaining to his co-workers through translators why he wants so many retakes. His first experience of the country is having to explain his copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and an Aphex Twin album to a security guard in the darkened airport, its lights dimmed to conserve electricity. Rarely allowed to go anywhere without at least a guide and a translator, he tries to explore the city to get a glimpse of the real Pyongyang, but is constantly frustrated by his chaperones and their half-hearted and disingenuous answers to his questions. Upon spotting a group practising shooting at targets shaped like Japanese and Americans, he’s told they’re playing a game. What kind of game? No idea. Move on.

Delisle imagines himself living in Orwell’s Airstrip One or dressed as Number 6 and trapped in The Village from The Prisoner, though his experiences, while bizarre, are obviously nowhere near as awful as those of the locals. Occasionally, over the cultural and linguistic divide, he gets to understand their feelings, such as their terror when he wanders off in case he takes a photo of something he shouldn’t, which they would be punished for. The divide is deep though, and just as often he’s baffled by their unshakable belief in the doctrine of their glorious leaders Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. When he points out that he’s seen no disabled people in Pyongyang it’s explained to him that this because North Koreans are just naturally born strong and healthy.

Before that though, there’s the more obvious culture clash to deal with – he’s horrified that they all smoke in cars with the windows up, all the food swims in oil, he’s increasingly desperate for small luxuries like proper ice cream and coffee. His co-workers are just as confused by his taste in music and his attempt to explain what “Ooh la la!” means.

Whenever they can get a Sunday driving pass approved, his guides take him to approved tourist locations. Spotlights shine on icons of the two Kims everywhere they take him. Whenever possible he and his co-workers ditch their guides by visiting a foreigner-only restaurant or a Chinese-run casino or just by hanging out with aid workers who are afforded greater freedom within the city. Whenever Delisle sneaks off, the next day his guide knows exactly where he’s been.

Denied access to more than a little of the city outside his hotel and the studio, he instead explores those locations thoroughly, seeing in them a microcosm of the culture. Visiting the floor where the local animators work he’s surprised to find a rack of guns in their studio – all wooden, strictly for training purposes. After a while he becomes an expert in this little Pyongyang that he’s allowed to see, so that when a friend of his arrives at his hotel he can show off the depth of his expertise: when the lights are on in the restaurant and they serve fruit for breakfast that means there’s a foreign delegation visiting.

Though limited to peeks over the top of the wall, Delisle’s brief and limited journey through Pyongyang is as close to North Korea as most of us are going to get, a fascinating glimpse at how everyday life in a dictatorship works. Most of his stay is like that first experience in the airport, kept in the dark where the only things with lights trained on them are monuments to the glorious leaders, but Delisle sees them differently. Presented with a class of schoolgirls playing accordions in frightening synchrony he sees past their fixed smiles to the weeks of training to attain such useless, robotic perfection. It’s a glimpse that’s engrossing and alien.