Tuesday, November 10, 2020

On the Coffee Table: Pyongyang

Title: Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea
Writer and Artist: Guy Delisle
via Amazon

Guy Delisle, a Canadian animator and comic book writer, was sent by his French television employer to Pyongyang, North Korea for two months.  Looking back, it's rather amazing to realize that it's been six years since I last read one of Delisle's graphic novel travel narratives, usually focused on oppressive regimes.  His minimalist approach lends itself well to the subject matter.

The Pyongyang he portrays is everything you'd expect it to be: quiet, sterile, lonely, empty, desolate.  I wonder about quiet.  I've spent five years in my life in Asia and in my experience, Asia is never quiet.  Of course, North Korea isn't like the rest of Asia, indeed even like the rest of Korea.  The repression is real.  I can't help wondering how much of the book's atmosphere comes from Delisle's style or if the city truly is as deserted as he makes it seem.  He really did live in an enormous and mostly empty hotel.  Electricity really was used sparingly, leaving the city in darkness at night.  His movements around town really were tightly controlled.  Delisle's art enhances all of that but I expect in the end, it does reflect reality.

I had an epiphany about propaganda while reading the book, always a fun issue to think about during election season.  Throughout his visit, Delisle is repeatedly amazed by the totality with which his North Korean handlers buy into the regime's dogma.  It made me think about the color blue.  According to linguistic historical research, blue was typically the last spectral color to be named in most languages.  Japanese is an interesting modern case.  The Japanese word for blue is ao which is also a word for green while there is another entirely separate word for green: midori.  One theory has it that it took longer for cultures to develop dyes for blue than for other colors and therefore there was no need for the word in commerce, often the driver for written language.  Another theory suggests that due to the ubiquitous blue in the sky, as opposed to the ever-changing earthbound greens, people don't notice blue as quickly.  Seem far-fetched?  It's worth noting that blue is also typically the last color to be identified by young children as they learn spoken language.

My point: people don't give much thought to something that is always there.  They don't see blue because they are desensitized to it.  It is the color of nothing.  It is not-color.  If you have lived your entire life in a country where a singular political message is all you've ever heard, you believe it not because you have thoroughly examined it but because it is, in essence, your nothing.  Kim Jong-un's supremacy is unquestioned because it is all that has ever been.  Seem far-fetched?  It is the same line of thinking that leads many of my white students in Vermont to say that they don't have a culture.  They don't see white culture as separate from everything else because it is all they have ever seen.  It is their normal because it is their nothing.

It's why so many people think they don't have an accent.

Pyongyang is a sobering read.  I don't really feel I know much more about North Korea than I already did, though I wonder if it's even possible to know much more.

12 comments:

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    1. I highly recommend the author for anyone interested in travel writing.

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  2. This does look interesting- Tae Kwon-Do has led me into research and writing on Korean history, I'm always on the lookout for new perspectives. Also I remember I was about 5 when I discovered I had an accent.

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    1. I just finished a K-Pop unit with my students so the peninsula has been much on my mind of late. It's a fascinating part of the world. My personal experience consists of 24 hours in Seoul.

      I'd say 5 years old is ahead of the curve for that level of self-awareness!

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    1. Definitely. There is a Spanish translation available if you're interested.

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  4. What always strikes me about NK is the darkness, the void of the place, at night. You can see it from space by its absence on Earth. It's sad.

    Also with blue, since it's the color of the sky, it is frequently equated with "light," light and dark being the first two colors of pretty much every culture. It takes a long time, then, to differentiate "blue" from light/white.

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    1. Yes, I think the darkness would be unsettling. Mind you, it's pitch black at night out here in the woods and it suits me just fine. A city shouldn't be like that...

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  5. Thanks for sharing this. I may cbeck this out.

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  6. Despite having never stepped foot in the Koreas, NK terrifies be for some reason. I guess I've seen enough documentaries and read enough to sense the totalitarian nature of the country.

    Such total control, of both mind and body, is something akin to an Earthly Hell to me.

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    1. As noted above, I spent all of 24 hours in Seoul: a stop over between Japan and New Zealand. I did my best to take in as much as I could in such a short time.

      Obviously, I was in South Korea, not North but the proximity of the North and the threat it presents was an oppressive reality. I have never been anywhere else where I felt like the country was so prepared to go to war at any given moment. Even East Germany didn't feel quite that way.

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