Any coverage of civilian life in North Korea will be fascinating, and Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea doesn’t challenge those expectations. Delisle worked as an animator for 2 months in Pyongyang, and his experience during those two months doesn’t say anything new or particularly exciting compared to other literature or documentaries out there, but it’s still an engaging format and an engaging experience.
Pyongyang’s a shell of a city, where everyone’s role is to keep up appearances: Make the city and the country look prosperous and content and happy. It’s all very blatantly Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Delisle wrote this mostly working with that blatant comparison. His adventure starts with him smuggling in a single copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and quotes and comparisons are littered throughout his narrative, along with philosophical pondering on the meaning of George Orwell’s writing. It’s aggravatingly shallow. He’s also pretty grumpy throughout his stay, and his reflections are condescending towards everyone he meets in-country. In that respect, he’s a lot like Paul Theroux, but without the writing chops.
But is it interesting? Of course! When he’s not staring at walls, getting drunk with other imported animators, or mocking locals, it’s fascinating to get tours of North Korea’s plethora of museums and monuments dedicated to its leader(s), or see its bungled architecture. We frequently run into ‘volunteer’ civilians helping improve the country by watering the grass…with small buckets, or cutting grass on the roadside…with scissors, using a DIY, extremely shaky weighted pulley system to construct (or appear to construct) buildings. It’s all very surreal and fascinating, even if Delisle’s writing, commentary, and art are mostly uninteresting.