Yurts on the Karakorum Highway towards Pakistan – my photo
Coming from Kazakhstan, which was lucky (and perhaps rather surprised) to find itself liberated from Russian control when the USSR disintegrated, it’s time to hop across the border to look a the closely-related people next door who were not so fortunate. Xinjiang (Chinese for ‘New Territory’) is the largest and westernmost province of the People’s Republic of China (Kashgar is closer to Istanbul than to Beijing, and not just geographically). It has traditionally been inhabited by mostly Turkic-speaking Muslim peoples, especially the Uighurs, who call it East Turkistan or Uyghuristan, and smaller groups such as the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz (now with their own nations) who are related to other peoples in Central Asia rather than to the Han Chinese. Nobody said history is fair. On the contrary, in recent years so many Han have moved in (colonised?) that the Uighurs may now be in a minority in their own homeland, in a similar situation to the Tibetans. (It should be said, though, that the Chinese have also been in the ‘Western ‘Regions’ for a long time, since the heyday of the Silk Road). So far I haven’t been able to get a single Uighur novel, at least in one of the western European languages I can read. Perhaps that in itself says something? So I’ve covered this huge territory with a short story by a Uighur writer, Wild Pigeon (also called Blue Pigeon, light blue being the Uighurs’ colour), and the novel Loulan kaj Fremdregionano by INOUE Yasushi.
“The air inside and outside this cage are identical, I think, but the life possible on my side of these iron bars might just as well belong to a different universe.”
Considering how much writing it was to cost its author, this is an important little work.
In a dream, a wild pigeon (perhaps from the ‘Stans to the west?) visits his relatives the domesticated pigeons (of Xinjiang?) They have given up their souls, given up even thinking about souls.
The visitor suspects that words have different meanings here, but actually they don’t. There are in fact two kinds of naivety.
The older pigeon has ‘gone over’ to the humans, and he gets his fill while others starve, defending the system. In the end it’s the pigeons themselves that do in the wild pigeon, not the humans.
Perhaps the captors’ stupidity and ignorance about the pigeons’ is shown by their idea that they could keep a male pigeon for eggs? It is such a sad, cruel, hopeless and beautifully written story that, even if not of the same quality, it reminded me of one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales.
After the wild pigeon falls into the human trap, in the end he comes to the heartbreaking conclusion that the only thing to do is commit suicide and die with dignity. The situation really does seem hopeless. The poet Yasin was jailed by the Chinese authorities for writing this story, ‘inciting splittism’, and reportedly died in prison in 2011.
In the translation on the Radio Free Asia website, blocks of the text were repeated – I was unsure as to whether this was deliberate or a mistake.
As a postscript – The PRC has recently started using surveillance drones disguised as birds, called The Dove, especially in Xinjiang. I’m sure this is a pure coincidence.
YASIN, Nurmuhemmet (Nurmemet) (1977? – 2011?): Wild Pigeon (also: Blue Pigeon), first published in the Kashgar Literary Magazine, 2004, issue 5 (all copies of which were subsequently recalled). Translated by Dr Dolkun Kamberi, 2005 https://www.rfa.org/english/uyghur/wild_pigeon-20050627.html, accessed 14/11/2018.
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)
North Korea (PDRK) is difficult, not only for diplomats but also for world-readers! The aim of my reading project is, essentially, to read a novel from every country and, if possible, to learn as much as possible about that country from it, from the inside. But I’m acutely aware that sometimes, due to dictatorship or other reasons, a book published in a certain country might actually tell you less about the real situation there than one published outside, perhaps by a refugee, émigré or just a foreign observer. This may well be the case with North Korea. There is no shortage of fascinating books about it, and I’ve read several of them recently. But my main aim here is to read what the local people might read, even if it’s only the voice of the government.
Since most outsiders are unlikely to ever read anything from there, it might be worth posting on a few books.
By the way, while in English we usually refer to ‘North Korea’ and ‘South Korea’ (or their official titles, PDRK and ROK), as a single country divided by war, it’s interesting that in the two states different traditional names are used for ‘Korea’ – Choson (Joseon) in the North, Daehan Minguk in the South. And it hasn’t only been divided since the Korean War – it was divided into three states for a large part of its history.
While reading this I also read a couple of fascinating non-fiction books on the country: Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick); Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader (Bradley K. Martin); and Without You, There is No Us (Suki Kim). I found all of them enthralling and filled with the most amazing anecdotes. If you have even the slightest interest in this enigmatic land, I really encourage you to dip into a few non-fiction works on it. From my experience, they seem to be far more balanced and nuanced than the one-dimensional cut-out view you get from the Western (let alone PDRK) media. I can’t recommend these ones too highly.
This collection (Korean Short Stories) was originally published in Pyongyang in 1986, when Kim Il-Sung was the head of state (actually he still is, officially, despite the minor detail of being dead). The common feature of the stories is a messianic appearance (in reality or dream) of the ubiquitous Great Leader, who was (it was claimed) an expert in everything, so it was interesting for me to see the specific advice he gave on each occasion.
Generally the editing is quite good with only one or two funny typos (”Sometimes the beauty of fair sex is really mightier than the sword, the priest thought to himself”).
History of Iron (by Pyon Hui Gun, 1967) – A steelworker is visited by the apostolic figure of Kim Il-Sung (in the flesh this time) and inspired by his rather vague advice to repair his blast furnace which had been bombed by the ‘Yankee imperialists’ by hand-chiselling out the congealed iron.
Happiness (by Sok Yun Gi, 1963)
A love story in which a paralysed man suffering from ‘bone tuberculosis’ and a ‘Yankee shell splinter’ lodged in one of his vertebrae is cured with a bone marrow transplant. At a desperate moment during the operation the doctor cries out in his mind, “‘What shall I do, Comrade Leader?’ The penetrating voice of the great leader echoed in my heart. ‘Have trust in man and love man!’” The patient walks out of the hospital ‘before long’ and is rewarded by the Party by being sent to work in a mine (seriously!)
‘It dawned on me then [sic] happiness is not gratification of one’s desires. I still firmly believe this – true happiness is not what we have gained but the long hard struggle for it.’ Despite some ridiculousness (the patient ‘knocked off a dozen or so American tanks single-handed’ before being wounded) and self-contradiction (especially as to when true happiness comes, considering this is the theme of the story), it is on the whole not bad.
Ogi (by Chon Se Bong, 1961) – Ogi nearly breaks off her engagement to Bong Guk when he decides that he could learn more by going to university than by staying as a tractor driver. The romance is saved when she discovers the miracle of the correspondence course. ‘nuff said…
Fellow Travellers (by Kim Byong Hun, 1960) – A county party chairman meets an enthusiastic would-be fish breeder smuggling young carp in her can on a train. I wasn’t quite sure why she was freelancing if the development of pisciculture was already Party policy, but it’s nice to see someone there being front-staged for doing something spontaneous and taking some initiative!
Everyone in Position! (by Om Dan Ung, 1974) – A group of workers come up with a radical plan to move a huge crane a distance of 6 Km, faster than the normal time of four months (!), by carrying it whole on a ‘raft’ of trucks and bulldozing the road as they go, thus overcoming ‘the central physical moment of force’ and the ‘law of inertia’:
“The opponents of our views know nothing but laws of physics. They don’t know the essence of the Juche [self-reliance] idea that man is the master of laws.”
Unusually, this story doesn’t end in a triumphal resolution, although we can safely assume it will:
“The impressive march with the 25-ton crane moved on through the dazzling confetti towards the target of steel production set by the leader.”
Unfinished Sculpture (by Ko Byong Sam)
This one is uniquely set in Kwangju in South Korea (which the Southerners now spell Gyeongju) during a confrontation “between the townsfolk who had risen up for liberty and soldiers armed to the teeth”. Annoyingly, this story is undated so it was impossible to know if it’s based on an actual uprising (probably the 1980 Kwangju Massacre/May 18 Democratic Rising) or some future purely fictional event. Of course, you wouldn’t recognise the lovely city:
“Silence. Blood. Red blood. the roadside pebbles, smashed roof tiles, broken street trees, downtrodden flower beds, open school bags, the pages of textbooks and notebooks fluttering in the wind, children’s shoes, smashed buses and barricades… Everything stained with blood. This night the white-robed girl was wandering in search of her lover, on the asphalt road splashed with young people’s blood, instead of flower petals or spring rain.”
I found the plot messy and hard to follow.
Korean Short Stories: a collection from North Korea, Amsterdam: Fredonia Books, 2003, ISBN 1-4101-0218-1