It’s rare that anything written in North Korea, and sanctioned by the state, makes it into print in English (unless it’s official diatribes raging against American policy), so when I found out that a North Korean novel was to be published, I was always likely to give it a go, and I’m sure there are many others like me out there who are guaranteed to seek it out. The question here, of course, is whether readers slightly less invested in Korean literature and culture would benefit from, or even enjoy, the book. With that in mind, let’s take a look and see what life is like up north when told through the eyes of one who stayed, not those who left…
Paek Nam Nyong’s Friend (translated by Immanuel Kim, review copy courtesy of Columbia University Press) revolves around Jeong Jin Wu, a judge at the Superior Court in an unnamed North Korean city (possibly Hamheung). A part of his job is to adjudicate on divorce cases, and much of Friend is taken up with one particular case, the application by the singer Chae Sun Hee and her husband, the lathe-operator and designer Lee Seok Chun, to dissolve their marriage. The two are barely on speaking terms, and as a result, their young son, Ho Nam, is suffering from neglect. As Judge Jeong diligently pursues the case, those surrounding the couple confirm their story, reluctantly imploring the judge to put an end to the whole business.
Jeong, however, takes his job very seriously, believing divorce to be the absolute last resort in any case. Determined to get to the bottom of the marriage breakdown, he presses the couple further, compelling them to examine their own role in the failure of the relationship. However, it’s not just revolutionary zeal, or concern for the fate of Ho Nam, that’s driving Jeong. A coincidence of names reminds him of another divorce he granted years ago, and its consequences. Meanwhile, even as he strives to reconcile Sun Hee and Seok Chun, he’s haunted by the feeling that his own marriage is slowly deteriorating, and wonders how much of this is down to his own failings.
This is only the second book from North Korea that I’ve tried, after Bandi’s The Accusation (a short-story collection showing a far gloomier side to North Korean life), although I did recently enjoy the entertaining South Korean drama, Crash Landing On You (available on Netflix), a show that provides glimpses of people going about their daily business in the DPRK. In its own way, though, Friend is even more intriguing in that this is what people in the north actually read. Published in 1988, the novel is the best-known work of a famous top-selling writer.
By modern western standards, the divorce storyline can seem a little far-fetched. It’s not just the couple, but also those around them, that want the divorce, with friends, colleagues and bosses all resigned to the two parting ways, so you might wonder what all the fuss is about. However, in North Korea (in this period, at least), it’s a rather different story. Marriage, despite the lack of the religious element, is a sacred tie, and in a sense, if you betray your vows, you’re failing the nation, and that’s something our friend Jeong takes very seriously.
The most impressive aspect of the novel is the way Paek uses Jeong’s relentless urging to make the couple reflect on their own failings. His careful investigation allows us to learn of their early courtship and then how it all went sour. On one side we have Sun Hee’s ambition and her dismay at Seok Chun’s refusal to better his life; on the other, there’s Seok Chun’s anger at his wife’s inability to accept the way he wants to live. The two have undoubtedly grown apart – the question is whether these differences are truly irreconcilable.
It would be easy to focus on the differences between Paek’s novel and its western equivalents, but human nature is similar wherever you go, which means most readers will identify with Sun Hee’s worries as she considers taking the final step:
Fear gripped her. She felt that her best friend, her company, and her only son – all that was precious to her – were abandoning her. No, she was certain that they had abandoned her. She realized that divorce was not simply a legal process concluded in the privacy of the courtroom but a public matter with her entire community involved. She felt as if she were being weighed on an ethics scale, naked and vulnerable in the critical eyes of the disapproving public.
p.148 (Columbia University Press, 2020)
And yet, her very next words confirm her resolve:
Divorce was the only option for her.
Despite the reality of the hardships she knows will result from the separation, she’s determined to go ahead with it, unable to continue with her loveless marriage.
In truth, though, it’s Jeong Jin Wu, the ‘friend’ of the title, that we’re really concerned with. He’s an official who goes well beyond the call of duty, giving up what little spare time he has to assist those he’s involved with. Here, that involves, amongst other things, taking Ho Nam back to his own house for dinner and a bath when he finds him waiting forlornly in the rain, and wading in the freezing river to find sand suitable for Seok Chun’s smelter.
Jeong can be seen as the conscience of the nation, a creation of an era in which (as Kim explains in his afterword) the work of white-collar workers was beginning to be recognised and publicised in literature after decades where only manual labourers were seen as true workers. In a sense, Seok Chun’s story reflects this, with his reluctance to further his studies now seen as a character flaw, despite his undoubted hard-working nature. All the while, Jeong is examining his own conscience, wondering if his resentment towards his wife (an agricultural scientist who spends more time in her fields further north than at home) can be justified given the contribution she’s making to the nation.
Friend is a very different novel to those many western readers will be used to, but it struck me less as a visit to a different place than as a trip back in time. Sun Hee’s thoughts above are remarkably similar to those of western women in older novels, and there’s almost something Victorian about the reluctance to give up on a failing marriage. There are also echoes of past times in the depiction of some of the behaviour towards the women. My preconception was of North Korea being a state of gender equality, at least on the surface, but there’s little attempt here to hide the casual sexism, with gender roles and duties firmly entrenched, the woman expected to look after the home front and work, too. Even our hero Judge Jeong isn’t immune from this flaw, angry that he’s repeatedly coming home to a cold apartment and no dinner…
At which point, I’d like to return to the question posed in my introduction regarding whether Friend is worth a try for the non-specialist. Of course, there are issues, with some stodgy writing typical of that found when ideology trumps style:
Jeong Jin Wu had experienced many foolish people thinking they could use their political power or personal networks to manipulate legal proceedings to their advantage. He only hoped that the person who had just called was not that kind of a person, though he had his doubts. Jeong Jin Wu considered those types of people who took principles lightly to be far more troublesome and exhausting than those undergoing a divorce. (p.12)
There’s plenty more where that came from, and the direction the story is moving in is a little too obvious at times. It’s clear early on where we’re going, and the lack of real wrongdoing and the constant contrition quickly wears thin.
And yet, there’s a lot here to like, especially if you think of Friend as a kind of Juche Oulipo exercise. Within the constraints of what the authorities, and the people, expect, Paek does his best to create a nuanced take on both the causes and consequences of marital discord and petty corruption, tying this latter theme nicely to Seok Chun’s problems. If you come into the book ready to compare it with a comtemporary Anglophone novel, then you’ll probably leave slightly disappointed. However, if you approach Friend with the knowledge of the constraints placed on the writer, you may well come away with a fresh, unexpected perspective on life up north.