Tuesday, July 05, 2011

On Dictatorships

Apologies.  I was all swept up in the Kindle.  I've been so caught up in getting samples, I haven't actually read anything in ages.  It's unsettling.  More on that soon.

I did just finish a really wonderful book called Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick, which blew my mind.  Now, I'm a completely shallow ignoramus when it comes to nonfiction.  I want it to be easy, entertaining, engaging.  I don't want to struggle too much, at least not to stay interested.  I read for entertainment, and sometimes I think it's sad, but it's definitely true.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North KoreaI don't suppose you could really say Kim Jong-il's Korea can actually be called entertaining, even in the grimmest sense.  But in its very modern foreignness, it is intriguing, and in her narrative, Barbara Demick has made it incredibly engrossing.

Journalists are barely allowed into North Korea, and their experiences there are tightly controlled.  Demick spent five years interviewing defectors in South Korea, verifying their information against each other, and building an overall picture.  She makes the balancing act between the societal and the personal look effortless, by telling the stories of five or six individuals and using those very rich, personal narratives as a lens through which to view everything that happened during the past fifteen or twenty years.  She spends a lot of time with her main characters, using their stories to display facts and descriptions she got elsewhere.

It doesn't pretend to be a novel, though, or even a biography.  The organization is partly chronological, but mostly topical--one woman is a teacher, one a doctor.  A boy is homeless, a young man is sent to university in Pyongyang.  These people live very different lives, and we see all parts of society through them. 

The one thing they have in common is how close they came to starving to death.  However great a writer Demick is, there's an extent to which the story is just unbelievably fascinating.  How there can be a nation without electricity in the modern world, just miles from economic powerhouse South Korea and recently flourishing China is mind-boggling.  The narrow amount of information the average North Korean has available--most of it false--is frightening. 

Their greatest universities don't have the internet--they have an intranet, with a censored electronic encyclopedia.  There is virtually no electricity anywhere but Pyongyang anyway, and not much there.  Nearly 10% of the population died of starvation during the late 1990s--this in spite of humanitarian aid that was flowing into the country, only to be trucked away by the military and sold on the black market. 

I've been to South Korea--it's a beautiful place.  Everyone I met was friendly, and everything was neon, and I got drunk in a karaoke bar with a bunch of Western women singing the Canadian national anthem.  The fact that this vibrant, modern, zany society is only a short border--and 50 years of lies and oppression--away from what Demick describes in this book--well, it's hard to comprehend.  I can't stop thinking about it, though, and I can't stop trying.

1 comment:

Aarti said...

Thank you for linking me to this review! I have this book on my wish list now, and hope to find it soon!