Saturday, August 8, 2015

Journey into hope and fear

Review of "The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Story" by Hyeonseo Lee, with David John. Published by William Collins.

Hyeonseo Lee is a defector. She's from North Korea. She returned to rescue her family 12 years after she left. The Girl with Seven Names recounts these two journeys, full of insights into a country that has been shunned and closed more than any other in living memory. The book doesn’t merely touch on her escape, therefore. It opens up her country, questioning and analysing its structure.

What strikes you about the book is its narrative. It flows and never jars. It never strays into those black-and-white representations of life and politics which other writers who've emerged from repressed societies tend towards. Thankfully, one might add.

Lee’s North Korea is not what’s projected to its own citizens. It’s full of poverty. If there's a famine and people can't eat they're made to believe that their leaders stay hungry for them. Citizens are publicly executed if they don't mourn the deaths of those leaders enough. Loyalty is what counts. A society rooted in Marxist classlessness is stratified into castes. And a state which privileges submission to authority runs on lawlessness, drug trafficking, and bribery. With no punishment.

All this shows how closed societies operate. But there's something else here. Lee explains. “No one was allowed to be blameless,” she writes (David John, who is her “translator”, keeps the prose spare). That's what guides her society. No one's clean. No one's untainted. Guilt, whether imagined or not, is what keeps citizens loyal. What ensures obeisance.

I expected some rants against the state here. I was disappointed. Lee strays away from passing judgment. She affirms and dissects her love for country (“I will never truly be free of its gravity”). True, she’s critical. But not always. Her narrative for the most remains what it should be: reflective, unimpeded by any attempt at political analysis (except for the occasional comment).

The Girl with Seven Names charts her voyage in three parts. There's irony in how she titles them: in “The Greatest Nation on Earth”, for instance, she meditates on life in North Korea, but in “Journey into Darkness” she recounts her journey into the South. That irony echoes a paradox which Lee reflects on frequently: open societies are more pressurising than closed ones. They are free, yes. But that freedom can confuse. And darken.

She portrays herself as a cynic throughout. That cynicism is what years of brainwashing have given her. The moment she gives in to openness, she runs into trouble. Towards the end however, she manages to get rid of that cynicism: a sign that she's adapted herself into the open world. This isn’t easy for her, and for a good reason: North Korean society is built on mistrust.

Her return to her country, to rescue mother and brother, makes up the final part of the story. It’s more gruelling than her earlier defection however, particularly because she runs into far more trouble than she did during those years of exile. And when all hope is lost, when she's just about to let fate chart its course, she learns to affirm life.

That's the turning point. That's when the world begins to look different to her.

Throughout the book, she raises some questions. Like how a society of equals can be run based on caste. Or how myths which are so fantastic can be believed by its citizens. Or how even she finds it hard to yield to freedom and persuade her family to follow (when she befriends an American, for instance, her brother calls him a "bastard", in keeping with government propaganda). She doesn't answer all of them.

Should this trouble us though? Not really. She's full of hope. But that doesn't make her a happy-go-lucky optimist. For this reason, quietly but realistically, she ends on this note: will her country change?

She never truly resolves it.

North Korea's still repressed. It's still run by a family. A country like it cannot exist. But it's there. Whether it can sustain itself while killing so many of its own people, and whether it can continue without offering them an alternative history or "narrative" to compare their plight to and yearn for freedom, therefore, are issues that should be resolved later. Not now.

Meanwhile, we can hope. Like Hyeonseo Lee.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, August 8 2015