Book Review: Your Republic is Calling You

by Philip Gowman on 15 September, 2010

in Book Reviews | Books on DPRK | Korean literature in translation

RepublicKim Young-ha: Your Republic is Calling You
Translated by Kim Chi-young
Harcourt, 2010. First published in Korean: 2006
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Ki-yong, a North Korean agent, has lived undercover in Seoul for half his life. Inactive for the last 10 years, he is suddenly given an order to return home. Is the order a hoax? Is he being recalled for his own protection, or is he about to be purged? It’s only 24 hours before the secret rendezvous with the mini submarine. Not long to figure out what is going on and make a decision whether to stay or go.

So much you glean from the blurb on the back cover, and your expectations are set for a “24″ style drama of shifting plot twists and high action. As if to meet these expectations, the narrative sets off at a cracking pace, flitting restlessly between brief snapshots of the activities of the various characters in the book – the literary equivalent of the cinematic split screen. We watch as the chess pieces are moved around the board, wondering who are the significant characters, and which are the decoys.

There’s plenty of drive, plenty of mystery, and more too. Who would have thought that test driving a Volkswagen Passat could involve so much sexual tension? Despite this being at first sight a spy thriller, right from the start you find yourself involuntarily wondering, as you meet the various characters, who is going to end up under the covers with whom over the next 24 hours, or who has slept with whom in the past.

The narrative occasionally eases into more in-depth flashbacks which enables the characters’ backstories to be filled out – the wife whose father idolised Korean wrestler Rikidozan, the husband whose mother committed suicide during a Pyongyang power cut. And such details provide further food for thought: just as for Catholics suicide is a mortal sin, so in North Korea the act is similarly problematic because it means you “left the socialist paradise of your own will.” Ki-yong, having spent his life in three different countries – the North, the South of the 1980s and the radically different South of the 21st Century – understandably sometimes has reservations about whether the North is the paradise its citizens are trained to believe in:

He remembered the frightening thought that flitted through his mind while he was a Lotte World – that a socialist paradise might be a lie and Lotte World might be the true paradise.

These doubts, taken together with his family ties, conflict with his loyalty to the Party, and add to the fascinating mix of elements in the plot.

These more extended passages also provide some of the factual backdrop, for example the training methods for Northern spies (including play-acting in a life-size reconstruction of Jongno in Seoul, a real-life film set dreamed up by the film-crazy Dear Leader with the assistance of kidnapped South Korean film director Shin Sang-ok) and their infiltration of the South Korean student movement in the 1980s.

But this isn’t an action book. It’s more about life choices: about how small incidents can spread out like ripples to make a big impact on someone’s life. How one can be reasonably content in mediocrity, having made reasonable decisions over the course of one’s life; but if you find those decisions have been founded on falsehood everything crumbles into disappointment and deceit. And of course it’s about Ki-yong’s choice of whether or not to return. Having lived through 21 years of rapid change in South Korea, how would he adjust to life in the North?

There’s plenty of wry humour as well. Ki-Yong’s office assistant is summed up thus:

A bald porn addict with lousy credit, Song-gon possesses all the qualities a modern young woman abhors.

… while a 1980s student activist seems to lack commitment to the cause: “If the revolution happens, I won’t be able to go rent comic books or play video games.” And although the central characters are spies, they’re not very good ones. An incompetent tail gets arrested by the local constabulary for acting suspiciously, while Ki-yong confidently assets that his wife no longer has any sexual drive (“I was trained to know”). Little does he know what his wife is planning even as he utters these words.

Kim Young-ha’s latest novel to be translated is a breath of fresh air compared with much Korean literature available in translation. It is to be hoped that it reaches a wide audience: it certainly deserves to. British readers are in general suspicious of literature in translation. It is said that the publishers of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had to give away 50,000 free copies of the book in order to generate the word of mouth that has made that trilogy such a success in the UK; no such largesse was required on the continent. With luck, the public’s fascination with North Korea will provide enough impetus to get the sales kick-started.

Your Republic is Calling You is published on 20 September 2010 and said to be available on Amazon from 28 September.

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