Study Guide

Guy Delisle in Pyongyang

By Guy Delisle

Guy Delisle

Guy Talk

Guy’s our guide to North Korea. He shows us the sites with his lovingly rendered drawings. But, speaking of drawings, he leaves us to draw our own conclusions. Guy is a man of few words, and although he presents us with detailed pictures of life in Pyongyang, he doesn’t draw any explicit conclusion for us. We have to do that work ourselves.

Guy has multiple opportunities to debate with North Koreans, but he doesn’t always make use of these opportunities. When translator Sin blames the failure of reunification on the Americans, for example, Guy makes a valid rebuttal... but only in his head. All he says is: “Hmm... I see” (4.94). Of course, we’re pretty sure Sin wouldn’t have been up for debate anyway. Logic seems to bounce right off the North Koreans like bullets off Superman, but should Guy disparage them for not listening if he never speaks?

Here’s another thought: what can Guy actually say in North Korea? What would happen to him if he rocked the boat too much? We can bet it wouldn’t be pretty.

Still, Guy seems to leave a lot of things incomplete. On one of his first days in Pyongyang, Guy says, “There’s a poem in the air. [...] I’ll talk in rhyme all day... what a great idea” (2.27-2.28)—but he gives up by the time the elevator reaches the ground floor, without even making a single rhyme. It’s a scene that’s symbolic of the kind of inaction Guy is frequently guilty of throughout the book.

Now, we can’t imagine Guy is a totally lazy dude. Just look at this book—it’s proof that he can do something if he puts his mind to it. Maybe he’s just a soulless jerk, like the capitalist corporation he works for. After all, he doesn’t seem to express any sort of feeling. “I could cry,” he says near the end of the novel. But he doesn’t. Is Guy devoid of feeling, or does he just want to leave the tear-jerking manipulation to the Lifetime movie channel? Maybe he just needs time to think things through?

Just Your Average Guy

Guy isn’t perfect, and he’s not afraid to show us his flaws. He calls the Korean hotel housekeeper a “b****” (3.78). He identifies himself as a “foreign capitalist” (3.7) as if that’s something to be proud of. He watches people chasing paper in the rain and laughs at them... until he realizes that it might affect him. He gets blasted on five occasions, though at a certain point, we may just have lost count: (3.2, 6.88, 6.112, 10.111, 11.89). And, most egregiously, he rides with a drunk driver through the streets of North Korea. Maybe Drunk-Driving Slalom was the event the IOC was going to replace wrestling with before changing its mind?

Nope. It’s Just Bad.

Guy passes his selfish, entitled actions off as some act of rebellion. Even drinking soda becomes some sort of counter-culture movement for him. “Drinking Coke becomes an act of defiance. It isn’t glorious but it’s good enough... especially since I’ve always hated this drink” (7.60-7.61). What is Guy accomplishing by drinking something he hates to prove a point that won’t sink in? What exactly is he defying here?

Similarly, Guy gives Mr. Kyu a copy of 1984 to read, thinking, maybe, that it will open Mr. Kyu’s eyes about the North Korean regime. But giving him this book also puts Mr. Kyu in danger—he would almost certainly be punished if anyone found out he was reading Orwell. It’s another example of Guy possibly having good intentions but still being too self-centered to have a nuanced view of anyone else’s perspective.

Does Guy actually care about the North Koreans, or is he just homesick for some of the everyday comforts of Canada? There are definitely some truly scary aspects of North Korean life, but what does it mean that we see everything through Guy’s perspective alone? Is this book about North Korea, or is it about Guy?