Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Corpse in the Koryo

OK, where to begin? I've spent the past five days picking at this less-than-300-page-novel. It's called "A Corpse in the Koryo," and it's more or less for North Korea what Gorky Park was for the Soviet Union: a crime thriller set in a totalitarian state purporting to show us something of the details of daily live in such a place.

Unlike Gorky Park, however, this one claims to have been written by someone actually familiar with North Korea (Gorky Park's author had been to the Soviet Union on a couple of tourist ventures but wasn't any kind of studied expert on the place). Though the author's name is (of course!) a pseudonym, we're assured by the dustjacket that it's a "security expert" on North Korea who wrote this because he was frustrated with the "spin" that he felt obligated to include in his security reports; writing novels apparently allows him to give us an "honest" portrait of the place.

Trouble is, I can't find anything too special about this.

First of all, as a "crime" novel I'm not sure it really works. It's firmly in the John LeCarre camp of books that make statements by subverting the Conventions of the Genre. The corpse in the Koryo of the title is never positively ID'd (though, to be fair, we are about 90% sure by the end who it is) - and throughout the book it's never completely clear what "the mystery" is. This, of course, is meant to be the Sordid Point: near the end of the novel our protagonist explains to his "interrogator" that mysteries are never really solved in the DPRK - they're just sort of approached slowly in circles. What's interesting about a corpse in North Korea isn't so much whodunnit and why, but what the political implications are.

All of which is fine as far as it goes, but for a western audience expecting a whodunnit, it's more than a little annoying. This isn't a mystery novel, really - it's a spy novel - and therefore should have been marketed as such. Further, it was a long time ago that I got tired of "mystery" novels where it isn't clear what the "mystery" is. This has gotten to be such a cliche in this genre that - well, it's the mystery genre equivalent of those German punk and heavy metal bands that think they're doing something "different" by writing songs about the "underside" (shocker - it has one!) of the United States. This whole "the REAL mystery is figuring out what the mystery is" schitck is the kind of thing the can only be used once effectively (like Agatha Christie's stunning plot twist in the highly controversial The Murder of Roger Ackroyd). Unfortunately, this one has been used so many times by now that we just don't know who invented it anymore!

Fair enough, this approach works in the Noir sub-genre - but the key focus there is always on the character of the narrator and his relationship to the world (and, in the better ones, on the author's virtuosity as a writer and stylist), not the "plot" (such as it is). This has the trappings of a good Noir I guess - but it's set in NORTH KOREA for cryin' out loud!!! As soon as the author thought up this idea to himself and then asked "why has no one thought of this before," he should have answered his own question (honestly) and given up. Phillip Marlowe lives in Los Angeles, dude! Pyongyang doesn't have a "seedy underside." (You have to have a gleaming surface to pull that trick!)

I guess what I object to most about this book is the pretense that we've been given an honest look inside North Korea. I'm not saying the author doesn't know his stuff. I'm something of a hobbyist Pyongyang-watcher, and I can't find anything wrong with the author's descriptions here. But neither do they really satisfy me. I guess - to put a fine point on it - this comes across like the kind of fictional account I myself could have written about North Korea. All the details are gleaned from second-hand documents of the kind I myself can read on the internet. All the descriptions of the various places are spot-on, the shortages seem convincing (if contrived for humor - Inspector O spends most of his time in the novel trying to get a good cup of tea, but he can never find a thermos) along with the political machinations. I guess we're supposed to be impressed with the characterization of Inspector O, what with his constantly fiddling with pieces of wood and thinking about his grandfather, dodging marriage matchmaking offers, etc. But this is lifted wholesale from South Korean cinema (which in turn adapted it from Japanese mystery novels of the 70s). But when you boil it all down - what we've got in Inspector O is a pretty a-typical North Korean. This guy doesn't wear his party pin if he can help it, isn't married (and doesn't plan to be), is estranged from his brother, doesn't have any living relatives whom he ever has to visit, etc. We never see him shopping for food, going to the movies, hanging out with his friends, attending any of the weekly political meetings, riding the subway or the bus, watching the news, or generally doing anything that would give us an idea of the daily routine in North Korea. The "loner, outsider" type that is a sine qua non of Noir fiction here seems a little too convenient.

What the author gets to do instead is give us a fairly conventional gangster thriller - only the gangsters are "officials" in this book. But so what? Replace mafia goons with party cadres and you're done. Red stars for silk suits, as it were. Maybe that's meant to be the point? But if so, it's not a very informative one. Something about North Korea is qualitatively different from China. Giving us the same kind of neo-gangsters-as-cadres routine that would presumably describe Chinese politics with a high degree of accuracy here seems like a cop-out.

On the whole, what this book reminds me of (minus the romance) is Lucian Pintilie's 1992 movie The Oak(Balanța) - about life in Romania at the end of the Ceauşescu years. Fun as that was, I have trouble taking either one too seriously. Lots of Romanians in the diaspora have complained about The Oak in fact - maybe because it gives an unflattering portrait of Romania (certainly true), but also maybe because it just isn't really Things as They Were. Well, this one strikes me that way too. It's the kind of book an outsider (to be fair, of course, Pintilie is a real-life Romanian, but he was booted out of Romania in 1972 after going ahead with a play the authorities didn't like - and so didn't live through the period he is describing) would write about North Korea. Heavy on the political machinations, light on the "captive mind" psychology and day-to-day existence in a totalitarian state. That's more of a disappointment here than normal, I guess, because North Korea's "captive mind" psychology isn't quite like that of the others. Just like in The Oak, our hero (it was a heroine in the Romanian version) has something of a charmed life. His grandfather just so happens to be a war hero, so he's allowed a little more leeway than normal (witness the fact that he frequently walks around without the obligatory Kim Il Sung pin on). Like the protagonist in The Oak, he has a party-hack brother (in The Oak, of course, it was a sister) whom he despises, but who doesn't despise him. Like in The Oak, part of their personal issues stem from the fact that he was Grandfather's (in the Oak it was Father's) favorite. One notable difference: in The Oak, Daddy turns out to have been a fake hero. By the end of A Corpse in the Koryo, there was still nothing to indicate that Grandfather's (secret) opposition to the regime had been anything other than genuine. Like in The Oak, our hero travels from the glistening (but crumbling) capitol to the frontiers and finds, to his semi-surprise, that the frontiers are lawless. We get the same Highly Uncomfortable Train Journey, where keeping apart from the proles is the main concern. The Army seems to be constantly up to No Good. There are obligatory scenes of disregard for the lives of peasants (one boy is murdered merely to intimidate a local party man). Etc. et. We've studiously avoided mentioning the Big Bad's name (in fact, Kim Jong Il is mentioned only twice - once as "the Hand" on the first page and later as one of "either of our glorious leaders" in the first scene where Inspector O is upbraided for not wearing his party pin; Ceauşescu got even less airtime in The Oak), and yet the corruption of the system is ever-present. In short, this was written using Berlitz' Guide to Writing Novels Set in Totalitarian Regimes. I'm guessing Church (whoever he really is) had a read through Gorky Park, has seen The Oak at some point (and assumes - rightly, unfortunately - that most of his readers won't be familiar with it), and keeps up with the all the relevant news. But he doesn't seem to have spent much time talking to any defectors, or even reading accounts of those who have. He's seen the occasional North Korean TV show (I'm basing this on the ice cream vendors that are everywhere in his Pyongyang - that's a staple feature of North Korean TV, the dramas of which only ever take place in the summer as far as I can tell), and of course he has his intelligence background, which probably consisted of actual trips to the place (he states in an interview that he came up with the idea waiting in a North Korean Consul's office in China - I can only imagine he was applying for a travel visa), during which I'm sure he stayed at the Koryo. All of which adds up to a book that's correct in all its details, but doesn't really work too hard at showing us what's beneath the surface. Great precision, low recall, as it were. He takes exactly ZERO risks, making a total of ZERO speculations, and, as a result, doesn't really tell us anything we didn't already know. The lack of competition in this market - as in The Oak's market before it - ensures that most people will come away thinking they've been shown something they in fact haven't seen.

Well, fair enough, you might say. What's a fellah to do? It's not like anyone can actually go to North Korea and walk around to find out what things are actually like. Even in the Soviet Union there were student exchange programs and so on; in North Korea, there's only radio silence. Well, yeah. And so I don't want to be too harsh about this, really. There's only so much you can do, right. But I guess I feel like that even with North Korea there's more to do than this. There aren't many people who have seen the place from the inside, but that doesn't mean they're not around. They're not easy to find, but that doesn't mean it can't be done. And I guess most of all - although writing a book about a North Korean police inspector is a nice schtick for the crime/spy thriller market - Church should really have known that most of his readers wouldn't be as interested in that aspect of the book. Really, I think I speak for most of us when I say that I honestly was looking for a slice-of-North-Korean life from someone who knows just a bit more about it than the rest of us. Certainly that's what was advertised.

I sort of wonder if maybe this book wasn't rushed. North Korea's been in the headlines for a while now, but it's gained more prominence recently. Maybe Church was worried that someone would muscle in on his angle, and he needed to get his foot in the door before the competition got to write the "North Korean Gorky Park" - one that presumably really would be nothing more than a cheap thriller. So to give Church the benefit of the doubt (which he surely deserves - the writing and attention to detail are well above average for this genre - indicating he's capable of more) - perhaps the followup novel will be heavier on the daily life details. What I would recommend and be personally interested in reading: one of Inspector O's earlier, more mundane cases. Not one involving party bosses and smuggling ring intrigue, but one involving a simple, honest-to-God murder (of the kind that definitely happen in socialist societies), in which we have to actually walk around Pyongyang and North Korea and talk to ordinary people, etc.

As a final bone of contention with this book - I get the feeling that there's a lot more going on here plotwise than meets the eye. Once the book is over, you're not completely sure what's happened, but you have the feeling that if you were to go back and read it again, more would come clear. I'll have to say that while I LOVE that approach in television and movies (I will happily watch an entire TV series through 10 times - I've seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer in its entirety at least that many times), I'm not such a big fan of it in detective novels. Reading a detective novel twice falls squarely into the category of "too much work" for me . And so whatever Easter Eggs are hidden in this (and I suspect they are legion), I missed them. Sorry.

Alright, so on the whole not a favorable review. That doesn't mean it's all bad. People who enjoy a good thriller for its own sake will love this - it's well-written and grabs your attention, isn't too long, etc. Good beach or plane reading. I just wanted to say that it's not what's advertised. All the reviews would have you believe that this is the culmination of the many frustrations of a North Korea expert who was never allowed to portray the country in his official reports as it "really was." He turned to fiction writing as a way of giving a "fake but accurate" portrait of the place of the kind that can't show up in an official report. That was a plausible story, and I bought it. But that's not what's here. What's here is a slightly-above-average escapist mafia book. Good if you're on the wagon for a thriller with a twist - not so much if you're actually interested in North Korea.