Book review: Paek Nam Nyong – Friend

When faced with a translation of a book written by a North Korean, based on past experiences you might expect material that’s hostile to the regime. Texts that have been rendered into English tend to be either defector testimonies or an occasional collection of short stories or poems by a dissident writer that have apparently been smuggled out of the country at great risk to the courier and author. That’s the stuff that typically sells here.

So it’s refreshing to be presented with a novel written by an author in good standing with the regime, a text that has reputedly sold well in North Korea. It’s also interesting to get an insight into the sort of literature that sells there, and, to the extent that literature can ever be a window into the real life of a culture that produces it, get a glimpse of what might not be considered a too far-fetched representation of daily life in 1980s Pyongyang.

This novel was published in 1988, while Kim Il Sung was still alive and before the disastrous famines of the 1990s, though perhaps prophetically the preoccupation of one character in the novel is the development of edible plants that can grow in unfavourable conditions.

Friend is not going to set your pulse racing, though it is a very pleasant read. It’s the story of a stalwart lathe operator married to a former factory worker who has now become a celebrity singer. They are now drifting apart as a couple, and are seeking a divorce.

Enter Judge Jeong Jin Wu, the judge who will determine the divorce case, and who will decide who gets custody of the son. He takes a personal, fatherly interest in the cases under his remit, diligently investigating whether a divorce is justified. His interviews with both husband and wife enable us to see the backstory of the couple, and thus we get a love story as well as a divorce story.

The legal system in North Korea as portrayed in this novel is very different from the ones we might be familiar with, but the translator, Immanuel Kim, had the opportunity to interview Paek Nam Nyong in Pyongyang. For a while, Paek lived the same building as a provincial court, and befriended a judge very much like Jeong Jin Wu. He was thus able to do some first-hand research, which might suggest that the interventionist role taken by the judge may possibly not be too far from reality. On the other hand, even if it is a mere fiction, it nevertheless provides a useful moral example for the reader to follow. And probably that is more the point.

In a novel that has been written by a state-approved author, you might expect a personal appearance from the Great Leader himself, providing a bit of on-the-spot guidance. There is none of that in Friend. Instead, it is Judge Jeong who gives the wise guidance that enables the various characters to see the right course of action. Here is Judge Jeong on the societal impact of divorce:

When a man and a woman fall in love and decide to marry, it’s their decision. But they have to register for their marriage license. The law protects the entity of the family, as it is a component of society. It’s not an easy matter to destroy a piece of the nation. Divorce disconnects the relationship between a husband and wife… The family’s fate as a unit of society is intimately connected with the greater family of said society (p 117-118)

Interestingly, when deciding on the right course of action, it is not the consequences on those immediately impacted by that action that need to be considered first and foremost. Above all, it is the impact on the state and wider society that need to be considered. Judge Jeong knows that the family unit is a building block of society, and splitting that block has wider implications. More importantly, he knows through personal experience (via past divorces he has sanctioned) that children of divorced parents struggle at school and fail to fill their potential, which itself has a damaging effect on society.

Similarly, when an unscrupulous factory boss defrauds a prizewinning engineer of his prize money, it’s not just the engineer who has been wronged. According to Judge Jeong, the boss has “hindered the country’s technological advancement” (p185) and failed to “respect the country’s efforts to advance technologically and improve the economy.” (p190)

Judge Jeong is, by and large, a paragon of virtue, taking an avuncular interest in the child of the central couple in the book, going far beyond what would seem acceptable in a western society where every interaction between a non-related adult and child needs to be supervised by a child protection officer. He is also not above lending a helping hand to the lathe operator, going far beyond the call of duty, at great personal discomfort, to dig up some good quality sand, from the bed of a bitterly cold river, that will assist him in his next technological improvement.

Thankfully, Jeong is not perfect. He is somewhat begrudging in his support of his wife, who spends weeks on end away from home, developing new varieties of edible plants that can grow in the hostile environment of a cold northern mountainside while he has to look after the house. In fact one of the themes that this novel touches upon is the equitable sharing of household chores in families where both parents are in work.

Yes, every society could do with an army of Judge Jeong Jin Wus who can dispense avuncular advice and remind us to think of our actions in the context of the needs of the nation as a whole; to encourage us to seek to develop ourselves not just to improve our own lot but to contribute more to society. In Judge Jeong, Paek Nam Nyong has given us all a Friend who can keep us on the right path. And while an unrelenting diet of such literary didacticism would surely pall after a while, a little bit every now and then can be a salutary reminder that we should all think more broadly than our own selfish interests.

This publication is welcome both in its own right and for the brief but informative afterword by the translator that gives an overview of North Korean literature.

Paek Nam Nyong: Friend
Columbia University Press, 2020, 224pp
Originally published in North Korea in 1988.
Translated with an afterword by Immanuel Kim
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