Nothing to Envy

In Book Reviews on September 14, 2014 at 6:00 am
Granta Publications 2010

Granta Publications 2010

North Korea invites parody. We laugh at the excesses of the propaganda and the gullibility of the people. But consider that their indoctrination began in infancy, during the fourteen-hour days spent in factory day-care centers; that for the subsequent fifty years, every song, film, newspaper article, and billboard was designed to deify Kim Il-sung; that the country was hermetically sealed to keep out anything that might cast doubt on Kim Il-sung’s divinity. Who could possibly resist?

I actually had two books to write blog posts on before this one but I finished this book the other day and I decided to bump it up in the queue. I’ve never in my life been so affected by a non-fiction book and I really want to tell you about it.

Nutshell blurb: This book contains the stories of 6 people and how they lived in North Korea until they eventually defected to South Korea.

I feel that I need to tell you that I don’t really read much 20th century history. I love history but for some reason have never been interested by pretty much anything that has happened in that century. I began to think about why as I read this book and here’s what I came up with. The covers always look so drab (I know that we aren’t supposed to judge books by their covers but I can’t help it!!!) and they are usually in various colours of camouflage which puts me right off. Also, they seem to be written about various battles, areas where battles took place, tactics and weapons rather than about the actual people involved. They are also, frankly, intimidating. Just looking at books like these makes me think that they will be talking about things that I know nothing about and therefore won’t be able to absorb half of it and end up feeling really stupid.

Yes, I realise that these are really dumb reasons.

When I boiled away all of the rubbish, what I came up with is that I would prefer to read a book about specific people rather than just a country and it’s economy/politics/etc… I’m really glad that I came to this realisation because I think that it will open up a whole new set of books for me to read. I’ll be more inclined to read biographies and other books such as this that take place during that time period.

This particular book was recommended to me by a friend. She and I have these great conversations where we talk about historical stuff and then realise that we know absolutely nothing about what we’re talking about which then inspires some Googling and a subsequent trip to the library to find more information. One particular day, earlier this year, there was an article on the BBC News website about a new law in North Korea which meant that students had to get the same haircut as Kim Jong-un. My friend and I talked about it, decided that we knew nothing about North Korea and then she found this book.

Seriously, considering my intense love of dystopian regimes in books, how on earth have I not had sense enough to read more about North Korea until now? Shocking, really.

So anyway, this book.

Ms. Demick tells the story in an interesting way. Instead of telling one person’s story and then moving to the next, she intertwines them with what is happening in the country over the space of many years. It’s quite gripping and I found myself getting emotionally attached to the people whose stories they are. Because they are more than just characters in a book. They are actual people and these things actually happened to them.

What blew me away is the amount of mind-control involved in keeping the people so ignorant of what’s happening in the rest of the world and actually vilifying pretty much everyone outside of their country.

To a certain extent, all dictatorships are alike…all these regimes had the same trappings: the statues looming over every town square, the portraits hung in every office, the wristwatches with the dictator’s face on the dial. But Kim Il-sung took the cult of personality to a new level. What distinguished him in the rogues’ gallery of twentieth-century dictators was his ability to harness the power of faith…Once in power, Kim Il-sung closed the churches, banned the Bible, deported believers to the hinterlands, and appropriated Christian imagery and dogma for the purpose of self-promotion.

One of the most difficult parts to read about in this book was the famine that swept through the country. People were still expected to work, but the government could no longer afford to pay them or provide them with food. People had to find other ways to find food and many became reluctant capitalists by providing services or selling things in order to survive. Many people still starved:

Yet another gratuitous cruelty: the killer targets the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law, or betray a friend.

One of the people interviewed for this book was a teacher and much later, after she defected, she looked back and felt guilty for not being able to help the dying children who surrounded her.

What she didn’t realize is that her indifference was an acquired survival skill. In order to get through the 1990s alive, one had to suppress any impulse to share food. To avoid going insane, one had to learn to stop caring.

Life didn’t suddenly become easy once they defected. It seems as though the South Korean government is quite keen to see them integrate into society but the defectors have trouble getting over the constant shame and guilt that they feel for pretty much everything. I can’t imagine it being that easy to get on with life. Especially if you leave people behind. One woman left her grown daughters behind as they were married with children and fully supported the regime. Those daughters were later taken away to a gulag once it was learned that their mother defected.

As I said earlier, this book had a profound effect on me because of my concern for the people involved. It broke my heart to read what they went through and it breaks my heart further to know that there are many people who are still going through the same things that they did.

Also, I’m not ashamed to tell you that this is the first non-fiction book that actually made me cry. (Ok, I didn’t actually shed tears but I teared up and got all misty.)

It brings to light my ignorance of what is going on in other parts of the world that are outside of my insulated and comfortable life and I want to read more stories about extraordinary people who overcome difficulties to survive. It’s inspiring and humbling.

  1. It’s horrible, isn’t it? Ugh… North Korea…

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