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Sharply observed portrait of a political freakshow,
This review is from: Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (Paperback)
Guy Delisle is a French-Canadian cartoonist and animator who is 2003 is sent to oversee a team of North Korean animators making cartoons for a French animation studio - the grim frontiers of free trade, as the book's blurb puts it. This is not long after a famine nearly overwhelmed the regime and forced it to appeal for outside help.
This partial opening, just the slightest chink in the country's armour, allows him an opportunity to try and get a glimpse of what really lies beyond the façade of order and unity the country presents to the outside world. Since Delisle cannot leave the hotel unaccompanied by his guides, many of his efforts to this effect lie on his gently probing and teasing his guides to elicit a clue as to what they really think. Occasionally he pokes fun at them - because some of the claims they make are truly risible - but he is not contemptuous of them and many of his reflections are spent trying to fathom what makes them tick. When Delisle observes that don't appear to be any disabled people around, his guide informs him the reason for that is because North Koreans are all born strong and healthy. Hence there are no cripples or anyone even on crutches. Does the guide really believe that? At one point, Delisle lends one his guides a copy of 1984, which somehow was not confiscated by customs. The guide returns it to him a few days' later, visibly flustered. What did he think? Delisle never succeeds in finding out and indeed you know that he is not going to find out. There is no way anyone is going to find out until the regime finally disappears.
But this doesn't mean that the story is diminished on account of that: it is still a brilliantly observed, vivid, wry and occasionally hilarious portrait of an example of a totalitarian society that is a political dinosaur, the last of its kind, which one day will have passed into history. It may take many more years before that happens. One hopes that when it happens this book will still be around to confirm that such a political freak show really did exist. People will scarcely believe it otherwise.