In its candid examination of domestic conflict and female ambition, “Friend” unsettles
expectations of North Korean life. Credit...Toby de Silva/Redux
It may be surprising, though it shouldn’t be, to learn that North Korea has novelists and literary critics, fiction prizes and best sellers. Some books have been republished in South Korea, but English translations remain scarce and geared largely toward dissident memoirs. “The Accusation,” an absorbing story collection by a man writing under the name Bandi (or “Firefly”), was published in English in 2017, but it never had a life inside North Korea: The stories were critical of the regime and had to be smuggled out of the country to be read.
What is North Korean literature, as read by North Koreans? One of the few English translations of a novel from Pyongyang — “Friend,” by Paek Nam-nyong, originally published in 1988 — offers a beguiling introduction to the everyday, with none of the rockets and military parades that the words “North Korea” often bring to mind. As recent coverage of the health and whereabouts of the nation’s leader, Kim Jong-un, reminds us, fiction may offer more durable truths than speculative news.
The “friend” of the title is Jeong Jin-wu, a small-town judge unlike any magistrate in the West. As a trusted organ of the state, he isn’t limited to courtroom protocol; he assumes the intimate duties of social worker, counselor, wingman and private eye, reaching ever further into his litigants’ affairs.
One day, a young woman named Chae Sun-hee, a well-known singer in a provincial performing arts troupe, enters Jeong’s courtroom to file for a divorce. “I’ve been living a loveless life,” she says, when questioned by the judge. She explains that her husband, Lee Seok-chun, is a longtime factory worker who’s neither cruel nor unfaithful but “insensitive and speechless” and lacking drive. She worries that his indolence will drag down her musical career and impair the advancement of their 7-year-old son, Ho-nam. The judge is skeptical. Divorce would be a tragedy for the boy, he thinks. And the separation of a family, onto which so much of North Korean life is inscribed, “was more than a legal matter; it was a societal problem.”
Over 16 short chapters, Jeong takes a microscope to Chae’s and Lee’s lives to gauge the prudence and necessity of a divorce. The judge’s interventions feel creepy at times, even by the standards of the world of the book. He questions the couple at length, learning every detail of their courtship, from meet-cute through collapse. Jeong finds Ho-nam outside the family’s home one rainy day after school, when Chae and Lee are running late, and brings the boy to his own apartment for a bath and dinner. He visits the couple’s places of work and interviews their supervisors, who apologize for not having done more to prevent their comrades’ marital discord. “This was someone else’s family problem,” Paek writes, but the judge and bosses “handled it as if it were their own.” Meanwhile, Jeong tries to make sense of his own unsteady marriage to Eun-ok, an agricultural scientist who’s constantly on the road. In her absence, “he considered his life no different from that of a widower.”
In its candid examination of domestic conflict and female ambition, the book unsettles expectations of North Korean life. The women, Chae and Eun-ok, are so committed to their careers that they violate traditional wifely norms. Their husbands feel resentful but know they shouldn’t. As Jeong learns more about Chae and Lee’s marriage, he becomes more intent on saving it, and, in the tradition of socialist self-criticism, doing better by his own wife.
“Friend” is, at times, didactic and propagandistic, but for every unctuous sentence, there’s another that points to blemishes behind North Korea’s facade. Paek’s characters acknowledge the scarcity of electricity, corruption among government officials and a societal need for “becoming intellectualized in scientific technology and the arts.” The translation, by the scholar Immanuel Kim, can feel stilted, but usefully so, connoting the formality of the North Korean vernacular.
Many aspects of “Friend” are autobiographical. Paek, who was born in 1949, just a year after the founding of North and South Korea, lived the contrasts of poverty and comfort, of cultural center and periphery, that are at play throughout the novel. When he was a toddler, during the Korean War, an American bomb killed his father; his mother, a laborer at a wood factory who introduced him to Korean fairy tales and Aesop’s fables, died of a terminal illness when he was 11.
Like his character Lee, Paek operated a lathe in a rural steel factory for a decade after high school. It was there that he met and married a fellow laborer, raised three children and read Charlotte Brontë, Dostoyevsky, Hugo and Melville. He joined a provincial writers’ union (in North Korea, most working artists belong to state-run guilds) whose office was two floors above a divorce court. Paek befriended the judge and began to sit in on proceedings. “I witnessed arguments that can cut through steel,” he told Kim, the translator, in a 2015 interview.
Paek eventually attended Kim Il Sung University, the nation’s most prestigious college, and became a member of the elite April 15 Literary Production Unit, which creates fiction based on the heroics of North Korea’s ruling family. Though Paek has expressed thanks that “Dear General Kim Jong Il identified my potential,” he writes more than hagiography. His books “Servicemen,” “After 60 Years” and “Life” have earned critical and popular favor for their mingling of socialist themes and tender psychological portraits.
It’s “Friend,” though, that made Paek a star — a dramatic series based on the novel aired on North Korean television — and carried his work abroad. In 1992, the book was published in South Korea, where it sold well and introduced many readers to the possibility of ordinary life in the North. It was published in French in 2011 and adapted for the theater in Seoul, late last year, by an organization devoted to North-South exchange.
The interest in Paek’s work across the Demilitarized Zone suggests the possibility of a pan-Korean literature — the reality of an earlier generation of writers, before national division. The director of the theater production in Seoul, Lee Hae-seong, told a reporter: “I thought the language used in North Korea would be totally different, but as I read this novel, I found only a few unfamiliar words. The Korean was very much alive.” (NYT, 2020.05.05)