There must be a temptation to approach Paek Nam-nyong’s Friend, presumably the first “state-sanctioned” North Korean novel available in English, much as Samuel Johnson did “a dog’s walking on his hind legs: It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Skeptics will rapidly be disabused.
Chae Sun Hee, well-known as a singer for the Provincial Performing Arts Company, is what passes for a celebrity in North Korea. She comes to Judge Joeng Jin Wu to petition for a divorce. The Judge, whether typical or not, takes a hands-on view to jurisprudence. He visits the woman’s home, sees the couple’s son waiting outside for his parents, soaking wet, and takes him home, having asked the neighbors to pass on a message. He then immerses himself in the lives of the couple to unveil their path from happiness to acrimony, while reflecting on the vagaries of other marriages, including his own.
Originally published in 1988, the novel was and apparently remains immensely popular. It is easy to see why: the characters are layered and human while Paek maintains enough dramatic tension to keep the pages turning. English is as usual late to the game: a French edition came out almost a decade ago.
It can be hard to tell exactly what Paek is up to.
Friend, in this able and very readable translation by Immanuel Kim, is a salutary antidote to the many tomes that purport to explain the DPRK. The North Korea of the novel is—like everywhere else—filled with real people who love, tease, marry, fight, look at the stars, dream, make mistakes and grow old; they can be kind, stubborn, gentle, overbearing, silly and self-centered. In North Korea, again like everywhere else, life can be a half-empty, half-full proposition. Of course, in our better moments, we know this, but it helps to be reminded.
Right from the first pages, Paek confounds. When the singer comes to see the Judge, he asks himself:
Why does she want a divorce? Do she and her husband not have a good sex life?… Or perhaps her husband is impotent. No, it can’t be that. She has a son.
Yet the novel is in some ways quite old-fashioned. There are long digressions—the judge’s senior thesis “A Legal Study on Divorce in Human History” is for example read out in full in a flashback, the sort of thing one might find in a 19th-century Russian novel. Of course, with its references to the Paleolithic and Sumer, it reads as something of a parody of an academic paper; Paek seems to be having fun:
Jeong Jin Wu based his thesis on dialectical materialism applied to the concept of divorce, an approach that had not been explored by his predecessors.
It can be hard to tell exactly what Paek is up to. He lyrically describes the wedding night of Joeng Jin Wu and budding biologist Eun Ok:
They looked at each other in silence, the kind of silence that had existed before the universe was formed….
to follow it with incongruity:
Eun Ok, completely moved by Jeong Jin Wu’s commitment, gazed into his eyes and promised eternal love, a harmonious family, and positive results from the research lab.
Although there is more than a trace of socialist realism—lathe operation occupies a central role—this is contrasted with the desirability of what we would now call improved human capital: manual labor is ennobling, but is no longer by itself enough.
In such a society, life is bound to one’s duty to society and the state, but right and wrong aren’t always clear. A high-ranking relative of Chae Sun Hee visits the judge to points out:
Comrade Judge, don’t you agree that the relationship between a family and the nation is interlinked? Think about it. Can a woman who sings so passionately about the nation be the source of her family’s troubles? No, she can’t. She would be a hypocrite, and we all know that a hypocrite cannot move her audience the way a genuine singer can. Sun Hee sings genuinely and, therefore, cannot be the cause of her failed marriage.
Paek writes that “Jeong Jin Wu was impressed with Chae Rim’s rational analysis and remained silent”, except that he wasn’t. He isn’t surprised when he later finds out that Chae Rim has been skimming from his organization’s official budget.
The translator’s interesting afterword does not report what North Koreans really make of Friend. Do they consider Judge Jeong Jin Wu to be the “friend” of the title, or is he a meddling busybody? Different systems notwithstanding, one imagines in most jurisdictions he’d get booted off the bench in a heartbeat.
Friend may not be a great novel, but it is by any measure a good one. And if literature is supposed to upend our view of the world, then it’s better than good.
Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.