When a writer from North Korea finds an English-language publisher, it is usually dissident literature, telling of tortuous escapes from an oppressive regime and its abuses of human rights. Adding a different perspective to the hermit kingdom is the recently published “Friend,” a state-approved novel by Paek Nam-nyong.
An interesting cultural and historical artifact, “Friend” was written for North Koreans by one of the country’s most celebrated novelists, which means for readers abroad to find value, it should be taken exactly for what it is. No use searching here for hidden subversion: This story passed the censors for a reason.
Translated by Immanuel Kim
COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS
First published in Pyongyang in 1988, the novel is set against the backdrop of North Korea’s Three Revolutions Movement. This campaign in the 1970s changed the government’s focus from praising manual labor to self-improvement through education, culture and technological advancement.
A common theme in literature produced during this time was a new type of intellectual hero, improving society with higher education and technical skills. Like all good fiction — if at times slipping into the didactic and propagandistic — Paek’s novel shows complex characters dealing with marital woes and expectations, their responsibility not just to the state but to themselves and the people they love.
The eponymous friend of the novel is the provincial judge Jeong Jin Wu. Estranged from his researcher wife and raising their son almost single-handedly, Jeong is responsible for sanctioning divorces after establishing that a marriage cannot work. One day in court he meets Sun Hee, a singer asking to leave her husband because he won’t pursue more education and makes no progress in building machines.
Jeong involves himself in the broken marriage, unpacking resentments and thwarted ambitions and concluding with a speech to the husband, a lathe operator at a steel factory, that seems straight from a government handbook:
“Starting today, try to think progressively like the youths of this generation and create your own path. Don’t be an old factory worker set in his ways … Go to the Engineering College. On Sundays, take your son to the theater and watch your wife’s performances. You’ve been wrong to think that these things are pretentious.”
Thankfully for the reader, the rest of the novel is less heavy-handed. An expert at storytelling and craft, Paek shows the family as a small unit that helps preserve the moral fabric of society, which may be following the government ideology, but isn’t a strictly North Korean concept.
Readers may be surprised to see how much the characters and their preoccupations resemble novels from other countries, and throughout the book, the equality between genders is striking. Not only do all female characters have a job and career, they also voice their expectations in a manner that makes you wonder about North Korea in the 1980s — and makes Japan look backward by comparison.