Most people have at least a casual interest in what is going on in the Korea north of the DMZ, but little fiction from the Democratic People’s Republic makes it to the wider world (which, judging by the only story I’ve read, is probably for the best…). However, the topic is common in writing from the south, and authors such as Yi Mun-yol and Hwang Sok-yong have examined the situation across the border, setting stories in the north. Today’s post looks at another book with roots in Pyongyang, but this time the action is all in Seoul, as we put twenty-four hours on the clock and see how a rather unusual day unfolds. It’s time to discover where the heart really lies…
Kim Young-ha’s Your Republic is Calling You (translated by Chi-Young Kim) is a day in the life of movie importer Kim Ki-yong, his wife Ma-ri and their teenage daughter Hyon-mi. The action begins at 7.00 a.m. as the three get ready for the day, and Ki-yong goes off to work, ready for another dull, slightly uneventful, shift at the office. However, this is to be a day to remember, with an unexpected email shattering two decades of Ki-yong’s hard work.
You see, our movie-loving friend, while outwardly an average, middle-aged drone in the Seoul hive, is actually an undercover ‘sleeper’ spy from the north, and the email he receives is his first contact with the homeland in ten years. Turning to the poetry book which doubles as his code breaker, Ki-yong realises with a sinking heart what the message is:
“The seventeenth-century monk’s haiku that has planted itself in Ki-yong’s lap is starved of its literary significance, much like a camel that loses weight after passing through a vast desert. Ripe nuances disappear and only one meaning remains: “Liquidate everything and return immediately. This order will not be revoked.” Basho’s haiku, like the order itself, hints at the end of dreams.”
p.26 (Mariner Books, 2010)
The message is clear, and the agent has less than a day to follow his command – but what if he doesn’t want to go home?
It’s a fascinating set-up for a novel, and the writer uses the rest of the book both to explore the horrible situation Ki-yong finds himself in, and to examine contemporary society through the eyes of a man who has suddenly found himself thrust into the role of an outsider once again. The chapters, as well as having titles, all begin with a time, and the similarity with the television programme 24 is no coincidence – by creating multiple viewpoints (using the family members and a couple of other people who have become involved in events), Kim’s story is able to be played out in real time, characters criss-crossing Seoul in their attempts to make sense of the day.
The main focus is, naturally, on Ki-yong himself, and the early chapters see him going through the stages of panic, denial and acceptance, much more quickly than is usually the case in times of trauma. With no information other than the curt words of the order, he has no idea why he is being recalled, and his fate back in the north is uncertain. Perhaps, he’s being brought back to protect him from discovery and torture at the hands of the South Korean secret police; then again, it could well be his own people doing the torturing…
While the thought of his fate is continually on his mind, though, gradually he begins to reflect on what he will be giving up, his senses heightened by his impending departure. Knowing that his ‘normal’ life is over, he begins to soak up the atmosphere of the large, capitalist metropolis which has been his home for twenty years:
“By now he is standing on the subway platform. He hears the announcement that the train is about to arrive. He draws in a deep breath, inhaling it all, like he is going to cherish these scents forever – minute dust particles, the smell of car lubricant, liquor on the breath of an old drunk, the perfume of a young, sexy woman.” (p.72)
These moments of nostalgia for a time he hasn’t yet lost are contrasted with scenes from his ‘former’ life in Pyongyang. In flashbacks, we get to see his family life and his training as one of the elite agents of the north, walking around the streets of a fake underground Chongno (a famous Seoul street) in preparation for his later immersion into the real thing. It’s clear to see that the decision to return to the north is not an easy one.
It’s probably an understatement to say that Ki-yong is having a bad day, but things aren’t running smoothly for the rest of his family either. Hyon-mi, a smart, popular student, is having her first experiences with the workings of the opposite sex. However, it’s Ma-ri who has perhaps the biggest secret, and anyone who happens to be tailing her might get a big surprise…
Your Republic is Calling You works very well in parts, and it’s easy to see why this was chosen for translation. It’s an easy read on a popular topic, and while it’s not your conventional thriller, there’s enough happening in the background to keep the casual reader’s interest. Part of the success of the book is the eye it casts over the south, just as much as the focus on the north. Forced to see life through new eyes, Ki-yong realises that life in his adopted home, while more comfortable in many ways, is far from ideal:
“Everyone’s just struggling to survive. They’re doing everything they can to survive. Why was I the only one who didn’t realize that?” (p.300)
Ah, capitalism – it’s not all it’s cracked up to be…
However, the book isn’t all it could be either. I’ve read several examples of Kim’s work now, and while I quite enjoyed the shorter pieces I tried last year (e.g. Photo Shop Murder), I wasn’t a fan of his historical novel Black Flower, and this one didn’t always hit the spot either. He’s not a fan of showing, not telling – in fact, there are times when he delights in telling us what’s going on, dumping huge lumps of information into the reader’s path. I’m also not that keen on the writing, and at times some great scenes (such as a pivotal conversation between Ki-yong and Ma-ri towards the end of the book) are undercut by poor prose.
At which point, I’d have to also look a little more critically than I’d like at the work of the third Kim here, the translator Chi-Young. This is the third of her translations I’ve read (in addition to a few stories here and there), all by different writers, and I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed any of them much. In my review of Jung-Myung Lee’s The Investigation (a book about a famous Korean poet, lest we forget…), I commented on the flat prose, and the third of these books, Shin Kyung-sook’s Please Look After Mother, was… well, long-time readers will know that I was far from impressed 😉 As an advocate for literature in translation, I do try to err on the side of caution when it comes to criticising the wonderful people who bring these books into English; however, three disappointments out of three means my opinion is starting to firm up a little…
Still, Your Republic is Calling You is by no means a disaster, and if you like the sound of a psychological thriller set in Seoul (and are slightly less fussy about prose than yours truly…), you may well enjoy this one. I haven’t quite given up on Kim (and Kim) yet, and at some point this year, I’d like to try another by the same writer-translator team, the author’s break-out work in the west, I Have the Right to Destroy Myself. Here’s hoping that I’ll enjoy that one on more levels than just that of the story 😉