When you go away / Sick of seeing me, / I shall let you go gently, no words. / From Mount Yak in Yŏngbyŏn / An armful of azaleas / I shall gather and scatter on your path. / Step by step away / On the flowers lying before you, / Tread softly, deeply, and go. / When you go away, / Sick of seeing me, / though I die; No, I shall not shed a tear.
– Kim Sowol, “Azaleas,” translated by David R. McCann
I can still recall the early morning cab ride I took many years ago in Daegu, South Korea. I was in a hurry, as usual; too much soju and kimchi the night before. On my way to the hagwan for the morning portion of my day-night split shift to teach EFL to busy university-aged students cramming in some English idioms seemingly between classes. It was the loneliest cab ride I’ve ever taken. No English spoken; I pointed to a map. The interior a shrine of talismans lit by a black light, a weird Wurlitzer melody and a voice of sorrow coming from the tape player, like an oriental version of “In Heaven” from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Speaking of hung over idioms.
As you do in your travels anywhere, if you’re quiet enough, you let the “strange” culture in osmotically, and get an algorithmic feel for it over time. We’re 60% water from the culture we came from; by the time I left Daegu I was 60% Korean, by that measure. The rest I had to bring on board. People push and shove, masks worn everywhere, neon signs, musical language, sleepy Korean soldiers pouring from yellow buses, the sense of occupation. You remembered you were in a country still at war. And when you got tired of it, you found a way on to the American base, to buy Maxwell House and Gallo at the PX, hit the gym and library, and have brunch before the big screen with American sleepy soldiers. ‘Tired of it’ – the fucking moxie.
It wasn’t until years later, after I was out of Korea, one day poring over photo albums full of snapshots, that I began to more fully appreciate the culture I’d left behind, and thought about all the photo albums, smuggled out, full of our frameworks, our M*A*S*H* up of yet another client culture we don’t understand. I tried to keep this all in mind as I read Paek Nam-Nyong’s Friend: A Novel from North Korea. You go at it thinking you’ll be imparted some salving insight into the South’s mean-girl sister to the North, sulky and envious, in lieu of material conspicuity. Some urge to be rescued by the West; a hunger for Micky D’s. The bobbing bait of materialism on the surface of things.
But Korea for 500 years was culturally and socially unified under the Chosŏn Dynasty. Though a so-called client state of China during that time, Korea was politically autonomous; China was laissez-faire. Then in 1910, Japan colonized Korea until 1945, meeting underground resistance. During that Japanese occupation Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, was a Soviet-trained guerrilla leader known as “Tiger,” who led a series of effective tactical assaults. Japan had to cough up Korea at end of WW2, in a settlement involving the Soviets and Americans. When it became time to unify Korea, Kim Il-Sung held “free” elections that included no Southern representatives and proceeded to occupy all of the South, except the Pusan region. America/UN pushback ensued (see Korean War) and here we are.
Friend is an old book, first published in 1988 and previously translated into French and English. This edition, translated by Immanuel Kim for Columbia University Press, comes at a peculiar time in North Korean-American relations, and expresses a kind of hope that the Man Who Would Be King, Donald Trump, has counterintuitively created an atmosphere of negation with boy totalitarian Kim Jong-un. What wonderful times for global democracy, but we’ll take what we can get.
Kim tells us that the author, Paek Nam-Nyong, once belonged to the April 15th Literary Production Unit, a central task of which was to produce historical novels – The Year 1932, being one – extolling the heroic virtues Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il. By doing so, Nam-Nyong helped prop up the almost-caricaturistic, larger-than-life Kim personality cult that uneasily reminds one of Jimmy Jones and his Kool-Aid gang in Guyana. Also, an important lens to keep handy is that Nam-Nyong’s father was killed in an American bombardment of the North when he was a baby, and, growing up in poverty, he lost his mother to disease when he was 10 years old. He lives in Pyonyang today.
The Friend referred to, by the novel’s title, is one Jeong Jin Wu, a judge who specializes in divorce cases, and the odd off-cut case that gets to the heart of the DPRK’s social contract with astonishing clarity. Nam-Nyong opens the novel by suggesting to the reader that life is so calm and serene in a district of the city Kanggye in the 1970s that nobody really knows where the court is located. “Although the Superior Court handled unsavory civil and criminal cases,” Nam-Nyong’s 3rd person limited omniscient narrator tells us, “the monumental facade of the building gave an impression of both grandeur and quiet dignity.” In this sense, Judge Jeong Jin Wu represents the Court-as-Friend – there to quietly restore a sense of Confucian balance.
It’s a short novel, at about 200 pages, and yet Nam-Nyong manages to “say” the judge’s name some 621 times (I counted). The effect of the three stressed syllables – Jeong Jin Wu – is to reinforce the importance of this protagonist, not only as a subject-in-himself but a central representative of the socialist community. He’s a role player, and by the time we’re done with book, we see a society of role players. It would border on allegorical, if not for the fact that people actually live like this. (Remember our American communes in the ‘60s and the roles we played, rapping and freely sharing our naked love with each other? I do; I was in a poetry commune and coupled often.) Buddhists dig it.
Well, how does a ‘peaceable kingdom’ work? To work at all, it has to be all about works, and trappings of materiality have to be stripped down, desire put on a paleo diet, and consciousness focussed on the old yin and yang – balance for the many; it’s the way the emperor likes it. Sounds crazy and cartoonish, but you should hear what they say about capitalism. This is really a central theme of Friend. We don’t need no Koyaanisqatsi in our community. And the judge is there, a gentle Lefty arbiter, to restore the balance. True, he’s a little too Left, but the promise is that, in the end, like T.S. Eliot said at the end of Four Quartets, “All manner of things shall be well.”
Friend has three parts, Their Love, Two Lives and Family, and works its way through the process of becoming and unbecoming in the lives of Lee Seok Chun and Sun Hee, a couple with a young child, Nam Ho, who are seeking a divorce from each other. The whole of Friend is equal to the sum of these parts. Judge Wu listens patiently when Sun Hee, a leading mezzo-soprano for the Provincial Performing Arts Company. Meets with him in his court chambers to plead her case for the divorce. Wu tries to surmise the underlying issue:
Why does she want a divorce? Do she and her husband not have a good sex life? Judge Jeong Jin Wu thought. Or perhaps her husband is impotent. No, it can’t be that. She has a son.
Standard stuff everywhere.
It turns out to be a matter of irreconcilable differences. But it’s a society of reconciliation, and such differences, at least as far as Wu is concerned, need to be fleshed out and understood – possibilities other than divorce imagined. Wu is a sensitive soul who loses sleep over the discord of his supplicants. “Much like a fisherman trying to untangle knots in a fishing line, Jeong Jin Wu was upset by the burden of having to deal with another family’s misery,” the narrator tells us. Oh, what tangled webs we weave when we go and self-deceive, he seems to believe, but then what does Wu know, as Nam-Nyong puts the judge through some serious changes of his own, when we discover Wu, too, has marital difficulties. Spicy dramatic tension.
So, not only do we learn that the good judge has grown to resent his wife’s absence from home 20 days per month (following her bliss involves bringing her agricultural expertise to a mountain community far away, and forces the judge to do his own dishes). He also recalls a couple that he did divorce out of pity for the wife, once he discover that the husband was willing to call her an adulterer (and destroy her reputation) to get a divorce.
This Korean Pilgrim’s Progress through the stages of discord back to balance involves other couples observed, too. And we meet an idealized couple, in the form of Eun Mi and her family. Sun Hee “envies” Eun Mi because she was also a great singer and dearly loved her husband with the kind of innocence that had not yet seen the harrowing reality of married life. The couple’s intimacy was evident, and harmony dwelled in Eun Mi’s family.
This harmony, to Wu, a man who must weigh things in the great scales of district justice, his humble zone of local influence, is everything. He reinforces the value of these couplings by showing another couple – a nameless coal miner and school teacher, who are shown as hard-working and loving – whom he returns to a few times. In fact, as he does with Seok Chun and Sun Hee, he interferes, after judicial hours, in their marriage dialectics. For instance, with Seok Chun he will go the extra mile to a river and wade knee-deep to dredge up special sand for Seok to make a machine mold for a project that will advance his career – and maybe make Sun Hee happy and willing to drop the divorce. Later, he tries to talk the coal miner out of apparent incipient alcoholism, as he fears it will unbalance his now beautiful marriage.
Like the culture it comes from, the language in Friend is spare and unadorned and refreshingly clear. Like re-reading Hemingway after fucking around with Joyce’s islands in the stream of consciousness called Ulysses. Nam-Nyong’s characters thoughts, though complex, are not caught up in decorative expositions of wit, charm and intellectuality – because these are forms of excess subjectivity and materiality (celebrations of desire that lead to problems in a society bent on egalitarianism). So, then.
Nam-Nyong achieves this effect in two instances where he has remembrances of love’s eruption, leading to proposals and a marriage contract. First, we hear some of Seok’s thoughts about his infatuation with Sun Hee as he meanders through the pouring rain:
Seok Chun meandered as though intoxicated and, struggling to keep his balance, proceeded in despair. Suddenly he fell into a ditch, a booby trap set by the neighborhood kids. Seok Chun lifted his head and saw on the path the silhouette of a woman holding an umbrella against the dim dormitory lights.
In the shadow of the umbrella, Seok Chun saw the face of Sun Hee.
Then, in the factory, Seok Chun is so infatuated that he literally tunes into the machine she operates: “Amid the noise of all the running machines, Seok Chun was able to distinguish the sound of the friction press that Sun Hee operated.” You can’t manufacture this kind of love.
Not long after reading aloud a legalistic thesis on marriage through history to a group of comrades, he is offered tender, private advice by Eun Ok who admires his intellect, and he, in return, her beauty. Early in his courting days with Eun Ok, he, a well-grounded judge, has his emoceanal waters moved by her lunar persuasion:
Eun Ok walked beside Jeong Jin Wu with an arm wrapped tightly around his. She was jubilant, her face gleaming like majestic snowcapped mountains. Simply gazing at Eun Ok’s radiant face and lustrous eyes [earlier, Nam-Nyong had described Sun Hee exactly the same way] made Jeong Jin Wu ecstatic. The ice crunched under the feet of the two lovers treading on the snowy path. The brisk morning breeze had become calm, and the sky was clear. The silver clouds receded from the snowcapped mountains into the far distance.
They looked at each other in silence, the kind of silence that had existed before the universe was formed.
While it lasts, love is a many splendored thing indeed, but soon, too soon, it seems, the tide goes out on moony love: “Time had passed. Marriage had not been an enchanting reverie but a harrowing reality.”
Nam-Nyong uses naturalistic, almost animistic descriptors at times. Forces of nature express anthropomorphic interest in the lovers described. This, too, seems to be a cultural phenomenon. “Azaleas,” the poem by Kim Sowol quoted above, was written in 1919, during the Japanese occupation of Korea. On one level it suggests a broken love, a woman wanting to move on with her life, with the retired lover strewing azaleas at her feet as she goes, rather than tears. This motif is taken up in Friend, as each of the marriages presented is rattled by independent-minded females. On another level, it seems to speak to what David R. McCann calls “the resigned sadness of the Korean people.” (It’s worth noting that azaleas contain a dangerous psychotropic rhodotoxin, derived from a plant native to Japan.”)
One other aspect of Friend that is cleverly achieved is his depiction of children and, consequently, family. The thought that disturbs Judge Jeong Jin Wu most is how broken marriages will affect the children. Nam-Nyong stages these effects by showing how the merged loved of their relationship (the children) are virtually forgotten about as squabble leads to violent existential outbursts. Thus, one night, Seok Chun and Sun Hee, after a spat, neglect their son: “They had turned off the lights to go to sleep many hours ago, but Ho Nam sat between his parents, between the two rooms, amid the tense atmosphere, completely alone and dejected.” (It also pictured “a lost generation” stuck in a DMZ, longing for reunification.)
Children come across as coddled imps with, if all is in balance, an open future. Children are expressive in Friend. Seok Chun wandering aimlessly, love-smitten, falls into a “boobytrap” set randomly by such imps. Later, as the judge is walking along, kids run into him, and he almost loses his balance. Even Ho Nam tells Chae Rim, Sun Hee’s divorce-supporting cousin, to get lost and throws a bean sandwich at him. This strikes one as humorous – as does a scene with a forklift where a workman with blueprints presumptuously hops on for a ride and is “almost” deposited into a lathe to the female driver’s delight.
One last bit Nam-Nyong plays us with is the witty (well, I laughed) depiction of a very serious crime – a felony that a worker commits at a manufacturing facility that you would conceive in the West:
The director of the City Electricity Distribution Company had designed an electric blanket for personal use and had been using it without permission from the government. This was considered a felony, as the entire country was trying to conserve energy. He was not an ordinary citizen, but the director of the very institution whose priority was the conservation of energy. For this reason, he was going to receive a severe sentence. It was not simply a crime of wasting energy, but a crime of selfishness and greed. Electricity was more precious than money or any other commodity because it was the property of the nation.
For those of us steeped in cultures of conspicuous consumption this is numbing news, but pretty sums up the purported ethic of the North Korean regime and socialism in general.
All in all, Friend is a tight, well-written staging of the so-called Juche political philosophy of independence and self-reliance that wants to be the soul of the North Korean regime. As Immanuel Kim puts it in the Afterword,
Friend is set during the Hidden Hero campaign of the 1980s, which sought to recognize the extraordinary achievements of otherwise ordinary citizens… The trend in fiction of this period was to delineate a new class of intellectual heroes who improved social conditions with their brainpower rather than their brute strength.
It’s a signal of some sort; maybe a booby trap for our trapped booby in the White House. We ain’t all about the missiles, could be one read. Who knows?
It seems that Paek Nam-Nyong, whose fame came with earlier Kim family novels, is being called upon again to burnish Kim Jong-un’s reputation. The question is for what purpose releasing a forty year old narrative. Unlike other books written by defectors from the regime, Kant points out, “Friend is unique in the Anglophone publishing landscape in that it is a state-sanctioned novel, written in Korea for North Koreans, by an author in good standing with the regime” As usual, time will tell whether there is any other import beyond the narrative’s literary value, of which there is plenty. Kim’s dedication page is a nice way to feel the sentiment expressed in Friend. He writes: “For my wife, my comrade, my friend, Angela Kim.”