Sunday, June 23, 2013

Guy Delisle's graphic novel travelogues from Shenzhen and Pyongyang

I should read more graphic novels and cartoons. The word count in a 150 page graphic novel is minuscule compared with a normal work of fiction. But rather than devouring each page in a speed reading frenzy, I find myself lingering over the hand drawn pictures, reading every word and pondering what’s going on the in the scenes.

Guy Delisle’s travelogues have been a revelation – capturing his experiences working for an animation studio and required to travel overseas to supervise production at low cost centres which draw the in-between images between the key frames supplied from Paris.

Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China.

In the first book he travels to the Shenzhen in southern China which is closer to Hong Kong in terms of culture and economy that the rest of the giant state.

Inefficient animators. Unusual theme parks. Unfamiliar humour. Emergency dental treatment. Identikit hotel rooms. Public Transport.

He relates the drudgery of staying for months on end in foreign hotels, ordering the same meal three times a week in a restaurant using hand gestures and the name of a dish written on a scrap of paper to get around the language barrier. Despite this “eating remained the biggest pleasure of my stay”.

Delisle explains the daily routines of his co-workers, visiting their apartments for meals and contrasting their normality with the freedoms he is used to in his native Quebec and more recent home in France but misses when he is away.

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea.

In his second translated book, Delisle is once again sent away to supervise production, this time in Pyongyang in North Korea.

Picked up at the airport by his guide, he is escorted to highest point in the city to admire the view – a 22m high bronze statue of the leader – before being taken to his hotel, built on an island. His initial reaction is:
North Korea is the world’s most isolated country. Foreigners trickle in. There’s no internet. There are no cafés. In fact, there’s no entertainment. It’s hard to even leave the hotel and meeting Koreans is next to impossible. Pyongyang is a city of power cuts and empty buildings.
Yet a few months later he has discovered the delights of the bars in the NGO/United Nations quarter, been driven for two hours along an empty four-lane highway to visit the International Friendship Exhibition which houses foreign gifts to the North Korean leader in a mountainside nuclear bunker, and slipped away from his minder to visit the local station on his own.

While at times it’s a tongue in cheek examination of North Korean culture and customs, along the way Delisle notes what sets his host country’s society aside from the west; observations like:
One thing that strikes you after weeks of looking a the immaculate streets of Pyongyang is the complete absence of handicapped people.
He challenges his guide about this anomaly and is told:
There are none … we’re a very homogeneous nation. All North Koreans are born strong, intelligent and healthy.
Delisle adds:
And from the way he says it, I think he believes it.
These first two books are now ten years old. Life in Shenzhen and Pyongyang will have advanced; though the recent Panorama report from North Korea suggested only marginal change.

I’ll now looking forward to tackling the two other graphic novels by Guy Delisle that have been translated into English, describing his a trips along with his wife (a Médecins Sans Frontières administrator) to Burma (Myanmar) and Jerusalem .

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