The peripatetic Briton journeys behind the most unyielding of iron curtains.
“The only advice which really saddens me is the one which seems to strike at the very essence of traveling,” writes Palin (Erebus: The Story of a Ship, 2018, etc.)—namely, the warning that a foreigner in North Korea shouldn’t try to mix with the ordinary people. That, of course, is the author’s stock in trade, and it surprised him and his crew to find that in many instances, their North Korean handlers, true believers though they may have been, accommodated them in such matters as taking meals in ordinary restaurants filled with working-class (and highly bibulous) citizens. Palin’s travelogue contains much that is expected, though with his lightly learned way of putting things, as when he writes of crossing the border from China over the Yalu River: "A socialist market economy slips away and a largely unreformed command economy starts to emerge between the flashing black beams of the bridge.” His travels included a brief visit to the sacred highest peak in the land, the vision of which was marred by a vast statue to an earlier dictator in the Kim lineage. Palin is not quite as funny here as he usually is, but that’s small wonder given that he is chronicling his travels to one of the grimmest places on the planet, if one with its own surrealisms—e.g., a statue that depicts, among other heroically revolutionary figures, “two women looking heavenwards, one of them carrying a chicken, the other a television.” Still, one has to smile at the thought of the author showing a video of the famed Monty Python sketch known as the Fish-Slapping Dance to a bewildered audience, a member of which was concerned with whether the large fish in question was alive. Palin also works in a nice sidelong reference to Life of Brian.
More somber than funny but an eye-opening look at a place that doesn’t figure on most travelers’ bucket lists.