Rarely do Americans have the chance to read the literature of North Korea. That changed in 2017 with the publication of “The Accusation” by Bandi, a pseudonymous writer whose stories were smuggled out of his home country. Yet though Bandi’s stories give insight into life in North Korea, it’s notable that his works were never published in North Korea and not read by North Koreans. What do North Koreans read? And what do we miss by not reading literature published inside the isolated country?
“Friend” by Paek Nam-nyong gives American readers a chance to see for themselves. Published in Pyongyang in 1988, it is the first state-sanctioned novel written in North Korea for North Koreans to be available to Anglophone readers.
At the center of this novel is the failing marriage of lathe operator Seok Chun and opera singer Sun Hee, told through the eyes of Judge Jeong Jin Wu. As the book opens, a frantic Sun Hee arrives at the courthouse to petition a divorce. She details how she and Seok Chun “have not been on good terms.” We learn that he often gives her “the silent treatment or nags about little things” and has driven the family into debt. A musician, Sun Hee tells the judge, “our lifestyle is not on the same rhythm.”
The judge, however, is hesitant to grant the divorce. The fact that the couple have a 7-year-old child makes the case even more delicate. What follows is a narrative akin to a mystery novel with the judge as the detective and the marriage the victim of an attempted murder.
Undoubtedly, “Friend” is a novel from North Korea. Aside from characters calling each other “comrade,” there are moments of obvious propaganda intended to instruct and shape the way readers think, in this case, about marriage. Marriage, we are told, “is a component of society.” Moreover, divorce “is not a personal matter or a matter that can be decided by executive administrators. … The family’s fate as a unit of society is intimately connected with the greater family of said society.”
The surprise of “Friend,” however, is Paek’s psychological acuity. Despite the novel’s didactic moments, his characters are not pawns of ideology. Rather, as we dip into their minds, through the stories they tell Jeong Jin Wu as well as his observations, we see them as complex beings, desperately trying to understand how they arrived at where they are. We come to see how, at the beginning of their relationship, Seok Chun, not knowing if the coy Sun Hee feels the same way about him, oscillates between infatuation and resentment. We see how, years later, Sun Hee becomes frustrated at repeating the same fights: “She was at a loss for words, not because she had nothing to say but because there were too many things she wanted to say. Instead, she turned her head away from him.”
“Friend” is a novel about marriage but also the unknowability of others and the expectations they have of us, and Paek handles these themes with quiet gestures that are subtle but full of empathy.
Vastly different from the books about North Korea by outsiders and defectors, “Friend” gives us a view of life in North Korea and the mores of its people (at least the government-approved version). Paired with translator Immanuel Kim’s afterword, readers will learn more of an unseen literary North Korea. But more important, “Friend” offers an astute psychological exploration of marriage, the work that goes into such a partnership, and the many ways it could fail us.
Eric Nguyen is a writer and literary critic. His debut novel is forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf.
By: Paek Nam-nyong, translated from the Korean by Immanuel Kim.
Publisher: Columbia University Press, 240 pages, $20.