I think I bought this book from The Book People (it’s sadly no longer taking orders), just before the lockdown hit. I liked Monthy Python since I was a kid, certainly, my Bigger Half’s obsession with them beats me, but still, I enjoy a rewatch every now and then. This is one of the three books I read in June about countries I would not like to live in. The first was Złote Piachy (Golden Sands), about Bulgaria and the last one Kocie Chrzciny (Cat’s Christening), about Finland.
Now comes the part where I have to admit ignorance. I really didn’t pay much attention to what Monty Python members did outside of their legendary contribution to keeping people laughing. So I was only vaguely aware that Michael Palin likes to travel (that’s how vague it was). I was blissfully unaware of the number of travel programs he’s made, as well as the host of travel books he published. Oh well, at least now I know what I can watch in lockdown when I get the travel bug.
As such, I won’t be able to compare this book to others by Palin. This one does what it says on the tin, it is precisely a journal of the trip to North Korea. Day by day account peppered generously with pictures, published on a lovely paper, and with care in a shortsighted friendly font. What’s not to like?
Palin describes how the idea of going to North Korea came to be, how his wife opposed it, all the hassle and delays before he could even get on the road. Then we get to fly with him to Beijing and take the train to North Korea from there. The border control is the first sign of how different the country he enters is going to be. Basically, you are not allowed to bring with you any written material into North Korea, forget the travel guides, forget the Bible (if you’re so inclined to drag one with you everywhere).
Palin’s writing style is very warm, it seems like he is always smiling when he writes. There is some naive curiosity in all the questions he asks (many of them get him in trouble) and his observations. You can see that he’s consciously trying to stay very open to the experiences. To observe and register as much as possible, so he can sift through it all later.
The book was very interesting. Starting with the patriotic music blaring absolutely everywhere. Through mandatory English classes in schools, while the United States is still considered North Korea’s worst enemy. All the way to gigantic Wonsan Special Tourist Zone. Palin tries to understand the countries idiosyncrasies, but at the same time he also keeps an eye out on the beauty of nature.
Many things surprised me in the book, for example, I didn’t expect that Pyongyang will be so colorful and entirely modern (obviously in my ignorance I banished from my brain the awareness that the city was completely bombarded in the 1950s). Another thing that I wasn’t aware of was how mountainous the country is, leaving very little arable land to feed the nation. Also, there was an interesting change in the timezone during Palin’s visit. As the relations with South Korea were improving at the time, it was decided to change the time to match South Korea’s time zone (previously they were 30 mins off). It was done in very efficient way, decision made at 10pm, and implemented at midnight the same day. Making Palin late for that day’s shooting.
It was certainly an interesting read, even if I don’t expect to be visiting North Korea any time soon. Light and breezy, but then that was its purpose. It’s not an in-depth historical book on how North Korea became the country it is now.
I’ll end with two quotes from the book, that I think summarize it well:
As the days went by, I realised my preconceptions were distorted. The North Koreans I have encountered are not malevolent automatons. They are locked in a system which demands unbending loyalty, but which in return offers security, and within the narrow confines the chance for some to enjoy life and to excel. Those we have met, and those we saw going about their daily lives, were not broken and bowed, but proud of their country and pleased that we were so interested in how they lived.
So why should I feel something’s missing? I think it’s because I sense that, for all the access we’ve had here, for all the increasingly warm relations between us and our minders, they’ve been playing a game with us. We have been indulged, but never fully informed.