One Girl and Her Books

Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life. ~Mark Twain

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Travels From My Armchair

I've always been interested in other countries. I had penpals from the age of 8 and used to love reading about their lives - especially those whose lives were really different to mine e.g those in far flung places like Japan and South Africa or those living in communist countries. I've always read a lot of both fiction and non fiction from around the globe but I have decided to really read my way through the continents. I will visit some old favourites and hopefully make some new ones.

I am not going the alphabetical route as I don't really like feeling pressured to read something that I might not be in the mood for. I have started with "Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick. I actually started this book last summer but it wasn't really hospital reading so it has been languishing on my bedside cabinet for the last few months. However I picked it up a few nights ago and just devoured it.

Demick was a South Korea based journalist for the LA Times in 2001 when she started interviewing North Koreans who had managed to escape.

The story that captivated me most was that of a young couple, Mi-ran and Jun-Sang. Their story of their innocent relationship, walking for hours in the darkness just talking - and not even holding hands for 3 years, was so poignant.

In the futuristic dystopia imagined in 1984, George Orwell wrote of a world where the only color to be found was in the propaganda posters. Such is the case in North Korea. Images of Kim Il-sung are depicted in the vivid poster colors favored by the Socialist Realism style of painting. The Great Leader sits on a bench smiling benevolently at a group of brightly dressed children crowding around him. Rays of yellow and orange emanate from his face: He is the sun.
Red is reserved for the lettering of the ubiquitous propaganda signs. The Korean language uses a unique alphabet made up of circles and lines. The red letters leap out of the gray landscape with urgency. They march across the fields, preside over the granite cliffs of the mountains, punctuate the main roads like mileage markers, and dance on top of railroad stations and other public buildings.


Until her early teens, Mi-ran had no reason not to believe the signs. Her father was a humble mine worker. Her family was poor, but so was everyone they knew. Since all outside publications, films, and broadcasts were banned, Mi- ran assumed that nowhere else in the world were people better off, and that most probably fared far worse. She heard many, many times on the radio and television that South Koreans were miserable under the thumb of the pro- American puppet leader Park Chung- hee and, later, his successor, Chun Doohwan. They learned that China’s diluted brand of communism was less successful than that brought by Kim Il- sung and that millions of Chinese were going hungry. All in all, Mi-ran felt she was quite lucky to have been born in North Korea under the loving care of the fatherly leader.

Obviously I had read articles and watched a documentary or two over the years about the situation in North Korea but I wasn't prepared for the depth of awfulness these people live in. The stories of Mi-ran watching her primary school pupils die of starvation in front of her very eyes was like a stab in the heart. Late on in the book when she escapes over the border she comes across a bowl of white rice and meat on the floor in a garden - she can't believe the luxury of it but is even more shocked when she realises that it is a dog's bowl!

There are other stories of a young female doctor who is hoping to become a member of The Worker's Party, a factory worker who adores "The Great Leader" and a homeless boy. The stories spans the period of the reign of Kim Il-sung, his death and the rise to power of his son, Kim Jong-il and the terrible famine that killed over 20 percent of the population and resulted in the increase of illegal defections.

Demick writes in a way that really grips you. Her vivid descriptions really bring the heartbreak and total devastation of the life of these North Koreans off the pages and into your heart.

I totally recommend this wonderful book.

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