How I Became a North Korean opens with a baroque, bravura set-piece. At a dinner of North Korean dignitaries, the Dear Leader (Kim Jong-il — the novel is set a few years back) first plies his guests with luxurious imported goods, then, enraged at a perceived betrayal, shoots one of them through the heart. We learn that the murdered man is the father of one of our heroes, Yongju, who finds all the privileges and fripperies of his gilded life suddenly stripped away. He realises that he must leave, or die, and so flees for the northern border.
Yongju’s perilous journey is rendered in vivid detail, and draws on the many real-life testimonies of escape from the North Korean prison-state. Last year, I had the privilege of getting to know Park Yeon-mi, whose memoir, In Order to Live, tells how, aged 13, she fled across the same border, eventually becoming a human-rights activist and expert on the world’s most secretive and volatile dictatorship. Park was sold into slavery in China with her mother and sister, before being separated from them and enduring brutal sexual and physical abuse; she finally made it to South Korea — the destination of many who flee the North — with the help of a group of Christian missionaries. Her moving account gave insight not only into the depredations of Kim-dynasty North Korea, but also the miserable existence awaiting refugees in a China that refuses to grant refugee status or access to education, health or citizenship.
The first-hand authority that rings through such works poses an immediate challenge to Krys Lee’s debut novel. How can a book written by a South Korean who has spent much of her life in the US attain anything like the same authenticity, the same high moral register, as witness testimonies?
I was reminded while reading How I Became a North Korean of a 2012 speech by the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, where she argued that the Arab Spring didn’t need novelists, but citizen-journalists. “Your talent — at the time of crisis,” she said, “is to tell the stories as they are, to help them to achieve power as reality, not as fiction.” Fiction, though, can delve deeper than journalism, as Lee showed in the title piece of her short-story collection, Drifting House, where she wrote with subtlety and sympathy of life in a place where “younger children obeyed the older one who obeyed the mother who obeyed the father who obeyed the Dear Leader”.
How I Became a North Korean splits its chapters between the first-person narrative of Yongju and those of two other characters: Danny (Daehan), a Chinese-American who travels from the US to China in search of his Christian missionary mother, and Jangmi, a pregnant young North Korean woman sold into an arranged Chinese marriage. The three are thrown together in the shadowy borderlands and fall into an awkward love triangle. They seek help from Christian missionaries who are no less corrupt than the traffickers and people-smugglers who are closing in on them. It’s to Lee’s great credit that we perceive the political world through the personal travails of her three characters: there is nothing heavy-handed or didactic here, just a group of ordinary teenagers living in extraordinary times.
Yongju and Jangmi — born and brought up as North Koreans — only learn the truth of their identity when they are able to look at their bizarre homeland from the outside. Lee argues that, even when safe, the North Korean will never escape the mark of his or her origin: “they’ll always be North Korean. The way they talk and think, the things they know and the things they don’t, their history wiped out in a new country — it marks them forever.”
Drifting House was released to much acclaim in 2012, and so it’s surprising that the prose in this novel can feel cumbersome and déja lu; perhaps the language is defeated by the scale of the horrors it seeks to describe. How I Became a North Korean contains something rarer and more laudable than mere style, though. This is a novel of great sincerity and moral courage, a book that can stand as a resonant response to the challenge that fiction has no place in the white heat of political turmoil. Lee has given voice to the North Koreans who “stumbled across the jungles and deserts of Southeast Asia, seeking safety and freedom,” both to those who survived, and to those who died trying.
How I Became a North Korean, by Krys Lee, Faber, RRP£12.99/Viking, RRP$26, 256 pages
Alex Preston is author of ‘In Love and War’ (Faber)
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