Then the guitarist began strumming the chords of another song. They do sing songs like this, Man said. It was Yesterday by the Beatles. As the three of us joined in singing, my eyes grew moist. What was it like to live in a time when one’s fate was not war, when one was not led by the craven and the corrupt, when one’s country was not a basket case kept alive only through the intravenous drip of American aid? I knew none of these young soldiers around me except for my blood brothers and yet I confess that I felt for them all, lost in their sense that within days they would be dead, or wounded, or imprisoned, or humiliated, or abandoned, or forgotten. They were my enemies, and yet they were also brothers-in-arms. Their beloved city was about to fall, but mine was soon to be liberated. It was the end of their world, but only a shifting of worlds for me. So it was that for two minutes we sang with all our hearts, feeling only for the past and turning our gaze from the future, swimmers doing the backstroke toward a waterfall.
I posted on Vietnam back in October 2014, on the long poem The Tale of Kieu, but since then I decided to limit myself to novels, so I had to re-read Vietnam. No hardship, for I discovered this wonderful book which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
It begins with the chaotic US evacuation as Saigon fell to the communist North Vietnamese in 1975, the end of the Vietnam War as it is known in the West. The protagonist, a captain, flees to the US with his general, who little suspects that the captain is spying for the communists. He becomes enmeshed in and apparently enjoys the American way of life. The captain is split in many ways – half French half Vietnamese, a communist who lived under capitalism in South Vietnam and the US, a Vietnamese and an American. In fact he is a symbol of the split personality of Vietnam itself – North/South, Communist/Capitalist, not to mention of the US, whose double standards of the time are also on full display. There are some unforgettable scenes – the desperate last snafu days as the US fled South Vietnam, the murder, the interrogation, and the Hollywood war movie for which the captain is a reluctant and ignored consultant, and which ends up like a mini war in itself.
Nguyen’s writing is spectacular, dripping with all the irony the situation begs for (his handler is literally a ‘faceless man’, and I’m sure that a ‘sleeper’ agent would find it difficult to sleep!) It was maybe the hardest book so far to choose just one quote to showcase, I wanted to share so many! I can’t recommend it too highly.
NGUYEN, Viet Thanh (1971 – ), The Sympathizer, London, Corsair, 2016, ISBN 978-1-4721-51360 (first published 2015)
Once again I saw the face of the Khmer Rouge soldier who’d aimed her gun at the old man’s head. It occurred to me that the look on her face, as she shot the old man, as she watched him fall to the ground, had no name. It was neither anger nor hate nor fear. It was absent of rage or anything recognizable, and I remembered thinking that she had looked neither like a child nor an adult, but a kind of creature all to herself, not altogether real, in the same way a nightmare monster is not unreal.
This great novel is set during the takeover of Cambodia by the communist Khmer Rouge in 1975, and the immediate horrific, unbelievable aftermath. I was an idealistic teenager at the time and I first heard about what was happening there in a Readers Digest Condensed Book of Cambodia Year Zero. It seemed that no one outside knew (or cared?) what was happening there at the time, indeed it seems as if most of the world didn’t become aware until years afterwards, perhaps from Christopher Koch’s book The Killing Fields and the subsequent movie. I felt like screaming to the world, “Why don’t you care? Why don’t you DO something?!” Of course there was nothing I could do, maybe nothing anyone could do, until the horror was finished by a Vietnamese invasion – for which they received no thanks, since everyone (not least the Cambodians themselves) suspected them of a colonisation exercise, and perhaps that is what it might have become. But even if they were only swapping one Communist regime for another (and a foreign one at that), surely it was better than the KR which murdered perhaps a third of the total population, totally emptied the cities, and tried to drag the country responsible for the glories of Angkor back to some barbaric agricultural pre-civilisation.
In this novel, the background and experiences of the heroine are very similar to those of the author. She is deprived of her privileged childhood, with one exception: the love of story-telling that she receives from her father. One constant theme in the book is this importance of telling stories. This is one reason why, despite the horrific historical setting, the story is not not 100% negative; there is still beauty to be found as well. The natural world is important, and its symbolism pervades the story.
I realised, or was reminded (as I should know) that life is a lottery. Of those sent from the city, some are lucky with the country folk they are sent to live with and with their new life, others meet tragic ends.
Like Cambodia itself, the heroine Raami survives impossible odds to survive. It turns out that survival depends on what is inside yourself.
Sadly, there is not much true idealism left in the world. It was given a bad name by fanatics such as the KR in Cambodia, the Red Guards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Nazis and so many others in relatively recent times. Mostly, what is left is cynicism. What the world needs is renewed idealism ALONG WITH humanity and tolerance.
RATTNER, Vaddey (1970 – ), In the Shadow of the Banyan, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2013, ISBN 978-1-4516-5771-5
Book 65: Romania (German) – Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet = I would rather not have met myself today (translated as:) The Appointment (Herta MÜLLER)
I have been summoned. Thursday, ten on the dot.
I get summoned more and more often: Tuesday, ten on the dot, Saturday, ten on the dot, Wednesday or Monday. As if years were a week, it already surprises me, that after the late summer it is so soon winter.
On my big trip around almost all the countries in Eastern Europe a few years ago, one of the several in which I embarrassed booksellers by asking for something by a native that I could read for this project, one of the difficult ones was, surprisingly, Romania. No one could come up with anything in English for me. Finally in the rather charming Saxon town of Sibiu in Transylvania (I fell in love with its lidded dormer windows in the rooftops, like crocodiles peering out of a river), a German bookshop was able to come to my rescue. I thought this was an appropriate choice because a) Herta Müller wrote it in German, b) she is Romania’s only Nobel Prizewinner, c) there are actually a lot of German speakers in Romania, and d) my Romanian is rather limited. (And, e) my ancestors on the German side were also Müllers).
The original German title caused a lot of cogitation on my part, hopefully I’ve managed to twist it into equally convoluted English! The English translator avoided the issue, coming out with The Appointment, which is has the advantage of being snappy, and factually what it’s about, but loses all the unfortunate, sinister trepidation of the original. Perhaps The Summons would have been a better short title so that it didn’t sound like a mere doctor’s appointment.
The novel is set during Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, during a single day, as the young woman narrator travels interminably on the tram (which is allowed to not follow a timetable, unlike her! and seems as lost as the Communist system itself) to an interrogation by the Securitate (secret police). She has a premonition that this time may be different – she’s packed a toothbrush. She originally got into trouble for the ‘crime’ of sewing ‘Marry me!’ labels onto men’s suits being exported to Italy, as a stratagem to escape from her country.
The terrifying sense of foreboding is overpowering. The ugliness of a society where everyone is watched and dissected by not only a secret police but also by one’s neighbours is really terrifying.
MÜLLER, Herta (1953 – ), Heute wär ich mir lieber nicht begegnet, Frankfurt/M., Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 2011, ISBN 978-3-596-18822-2
Translated into English as The Appointment.
Only once Mrs. Oh had left the station and made it onto the newly constructed highway did she realize that it, too, was caught up in the Class One event. The road seemed to play hide-and-seek with the railroad, the former hugging the coast while the latter sometimes ducked away inland. And the road was utterly deserted; no vehicle dared to cast a shadow there, much less individuals on foot. All traffic had met a blockade farther up; Mrs. Oh had managed to smuggle herself on only by coming via the station. What on earth was this Class One event, if both road and rail traffic had to be suspended? Were there two Kim Il-sungs paying a visit? One thing was for sure: There would be ‘cats’ stationed at each key point on the route. [from ‘Pandemonium’]
Here is a new and totally different collection of short stories from North Korea. Bandi (’Firefly’ – a pseudonym) is a dissident who, as far as I know, is the only published one still living in North Korea. The Afterword, detailing how the manuscript was smuggled out with the help of a relative and a Chinese visitor, is itself enthralling, though since some details were admittedly changed to protect the writer, we don’t know which of them are accurate.
As to why I didn’t choose The Accusation as my main representative work for the PDRK, I have to admit to a few niggling doubts about its authenticity. If everyone in the country is fed a diet of what we would consider propaganda and uniformity, ‘Bandi’’s literary sophistication and international writing quality surprised me a great deal. Be that as it may, I hasten to add that you mustn’t let me put you off reading it because of that. On the contrary, it is insightful, ironic, fearless, readable and of sophisticated writing, and I highly recommend it.
Since it is likely many of you will read this book (as you should!), unlike my other collection of short stories from north of the DMZ, I won’t spoil it by giving away the plots. Some of the themes include the country’s self-defeating bureaucratic madness, the way even those loyal to it suffer, and the horrible way that the innocent are punished for the ‘crimes’ of their relatives.
I’ll just mention one of the stories, Pandemonium, since it was a total twist on the usual ‘Kim Il-Sung as deus ex machina’ in ‘Korean Short Stories’. An old grandma is offered a lift by the Great Leader himself (!). She had ended up walking along the road, having given up on both train and bus since all services had been cancelled due precisely to Kim’s own travel along this route (he had selfishly chosen to travel both by road and rail, according to which section of the route was most scenic). This causes a nightmare for everyone else. In the end the supposedly grateful grandma is turned by the regime into a propaganda tool to show the Great Leader’s compassion for his people. (Pandemonium is dated 1995).
This is an important inside look into the ‘hermit kingdom’ and, whatever the truth of its back story, we are very lucky to have it.
‘Bandi’, The Accusation: forbidden stories from inside North Korea (translated by Deborah Smith), London, Serpent’s Tail, 2017, ISBN 978 1 78125 754 8
(first published in Korea 2014)
The city was like a cinema screen; a flat square of city life lay out there. Watching it made Yosop himself feel as if he were no longer quite three-dimensional. The multitude of people who had created this movie for themselves had singled out Ryu Yosop, and they had no intention of ever letting him in, no matter how desperately he tried to climb into the screen.
So far I’ve been unable to run a novel from North Korea down to earth. I hope to be able to find one from there, even if the voice is only that of the government. In the meantime, hopefully this will suffice, and it’s certainly a worthy work. I included Hwang Sok-Yong under North Korea (Ann Morgan equally reasonably counted him under South Korea), since the book deals with the North, the author worked hard for communication between the two nations (he was jailed for seven years by Seoul for travelling to the North without authorisation – which perhaps counts as having ‘lived’ there, if you’re feeling liberal, Gentle Reader?) and he has pulled off the neat trick of being published on both sides of the DMZ. As to where he was born, he neatly evaded the issue by being born in what was then Manchuria (now part of China), and before the country was divided (or rather between divisions, since Korea has spent much of its life divided into two or three countries).
Enough justification; how about the book?
‘The guest’ is on the one hand smallpox; also the foreign viruses Christianity and Communism; and Reverend Ryu Yosǒp, a Korean now living in the US, who visits North Korea after 40 years to face up to what his brother did in the Korean War. He was involved in a massacre between Christians and Communists that formed a sort of subplot within Korean War. This elder brother dies 3 days before he was due to leave for the reunion. Reverend Ryu Yosǒp goes instead.
It must be said that there can be a bit of a tendency among Koreans to blame foreigners for their troubles, not only in the North but to some extent also in the South – and not totally without justification. (Nor do the Koreans have this tendency to themselves). But author Hwang Sok-yong is at pains to show that no side is innocent in these troubles, and that there is a need for understanding and eventually some sort of catharsis. The author saw his novel as a sort of shamanistic exorcism ceremony (shamanism is still very big in South Korea), and there is still hope for reconciliation.
Of course Korea’s great tragedy is its division since the war, and the cruel way this has separated families, almost all of whom will never get the chance to reconnect. The Guest gave me a good feeling for the awkward dance that happens when one is lucky enough to be allowed to meet those left in the North, and what it feels like in general to be a Westerner on a tour in North Korea.
It’s not always an easy read (it can be confusing as to whose voice is speaking at the time) but its literary quality is very high. The author rightly considers it vital for every voice to be heard, in a sort of literary truth and reconciliation commission.
Considering the heavy personal price that the author had to pay for this book, and his brave attempt to build a bridge over a raging river, this is a vitally important book that needs to be read to understand the Korean psyche.
HWANG Sok-yong (1943 – ), The Guest, translated from Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun & Maya West, New York, Seven Stories Press, ISBN 978-1-58322-751-0
(originally published Taiwan 1993 and 1996)