Guardian Review | Michel Faber | December 23, 2006
PYONGYANG and SHENZHEN in the UK Guardian
These two graphic memoirs, written and drawn several years apart but published simultaneously in the UK, are variations of the same scenario. In each, urbane French-Canadian Guy Delisle is summoned to an Asian animation studio to oversee the completion of a mediocre kiddie cartoon. The task of the lowly paid locals is to draw "inbetweens", linking key frames produced by professional animators in Paris. Endless retakes are required as Delisle contends with incompetence and the language barrier. He lives in a sterile hotel, fails to develop any intimacy with his hosts, goes partying with other expats to break the tedium and, after several months, is released from his servitude. Despite one playful panel where Delisle depicts himself as Tintin, these books explore a plotless ennui that's the antithesis of Hergé's fast-paced adventures.
And yet Pyongyang is a fascinating, even important document. Its simple yet highly evocative artwork brings us a kind of photo-reportage from a country where photography is restricted, journalists are barred and visitors in general are discouraged. North Korea, communist dictatorship, powderkeg of military paranoia, haven of deadly "re-education" camps, and all-round insane outpost of Dubya's Axis of Evil, is opened up just a little for us.
Granted, the gap is small. Denied a bicycle or a phone, continually shepherded by guides, Delisle is dragged around the official shrines to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il. Everyone he meets appears sincerely convinced of the godlike magnificence of their "Great Leaders" and the paradisal perfection of their country. A typical exchange occurs when Delisle asks his translator to explain the absence of handicapped people: "All North Koreans are born strong, intelligent and healthy."
Prevented from being a travelogue in the usual sense, Pyongyang instead functions as a portrait of a society in denial. With deadpan humour, Delisle documents what happens when fervent anti-capitalists are employed to draw cartoon animals for the enemy. Is it mere incompetence that makes them come up with bizarrely inappropriate facial expressions? Or are such lapses only to be expected from a people constantly obliged to disown reality? The spectre of North Korea's bereaved parents, patriotically upbeat as their dissident offspring are hauled off to be tortured and killed, seems to hover over the incident when Delisle demands yet another retake: "IMPORTANT: When the father finds out the children are lost, he should not be smiling."
Delisle's clean lines, uncluttered panels and caricature aesthetic make Pyongyang a quick read. Yet it repays careful scrutiny, and there are artful details and subtle juxtapositions on every page. At a school for gifted children, Delisle shows us a group of accordion-playing girls, all with identical forced smiles. Only on second glance do we notice that the anatomies and postures have been tweaked to encourage the hallucination that the accordions are part of the girls' bodies. These children are grinning automata.
Often, the artwork does more than merely illustrate the text; it counterpoints it. In the café of his prison-like hotel, Delisle reads Orwell's 1984 until distracted by the odd behaviour of the waitresses: they are catching flies with swatters and butterfly nets. One of the women, having seized her prey, "wedges it between the mirrored surface of the gray marble floor and her rubber-heeled shoe, then crushes it with great care, grinding her heel for what seems like an inordinately long time". The accompanying image avoids the obvious - a woman's foot grinding down on a fly - and instead gives us a long shot, almost too distant for us to see what's going on. The waitress is dwarfed by the triumphalist dimensions of the hotel, the kitsch grandeur of her totalitarian world.
Shenzhen, set in southern China, is an earlier work, published in France in 2000. The style is busier and blurrier, in keeping with the profusion and mess of the locale. Whereas the eerie neatness of North Korea's showpiece capital is well suited to a sharp pen-nib, Delisle renders Shenzhen mainly with soft pencils, and there is some lovely artwork here, such as the scene where he exercises in a candle-lit gym at nightfall. Less antagonistic to his hosts' world view, he is also able to recognise moments of pathos which escape him in Pyongyang. He tenderly depicts a Christmas Eve spent with a well-meaning Chinese animator, watching tai chi videos in a darkened apartment while new-age music plays in the background. We see the building from the outside, its ugly greyness enlivened by a small white word balloon: "Mely Chlistmas."
Overall, though, the book feels like a dry run for Pyongyang. Lacking the sense of threat that lends the North Korean tale some tension, and free to roam unsupervised, the book is somewhat unfocused, including digressions on Canadian cultural identity, recollections of Delisle's other animation projects in other countries, and side-trips to Hong Kong and Canton.
Both books are arguably diminished by lack of respect for non-western mindsets and traditional values. At times, Delisle seems to believe that good coffee, hi-tech gadgets, acid jazz CDs and sexily dressed women are crucial to an evolved society, and that the communal responsibility celebrated by collectivist cultures is worthless. There's always a risk that disdain for an oppressive regime can cross the line into disdain for people too poor to be cosmopolitans. At the International Friendship Exhibition, a museum of exotic artefacts in Pyongyang, a local visitor rhapsodises: "After seeing all these gifts from around the world, I don't need to travel any more." Delisle's derision of this sentiment is scathing, but he thereby fails to acknowledge the poignant fact that for the average North Korean, this museum is the nearest thing to foreign travel that will ever be possible.
In any case, there's something to be said for exhibitions of foreign curiosities. Shenzhen and Pyongyang, replete with propaganda loudspeakers, peppered goat lung, 4,000 tons of biochemical weapons and a miniature scale model of the Grand Canyon, offer us armchair travel to very strange places, in a form so vivid we may imagine we've actually been there.
Michel Faber is intrigued by two graphic travelogues of animator Guy Delisle set in Pyongyang and Shezhen