“There’s a reason most people never see anything of North Korea but Pyongyang. It’s because the rest of the country is squalid beyond all imagining, and this to spite the homogeneity of its design: single-story homes in a grid, whitewashed timber or stucco walls, the rooftops an orange clay tile, and every plot squared in with a brindled picket fence. There is no cement to pave the roads and no shoes to walk the cement, so mostly people are barefoot, even in the snow. The filth seems meticulous and prolific in its outreach — even the soap can’t stay clean — which makes sense of the delimited color scheme of people’s clothes: black, gray, black, brown. No one stands out unless you know what to look for… . I spent the first day in a janitor’s closet at the train station. Fuel being scarce, the schedule was a joke. A train came when it came. By the tracks: people asleep on the ice, in wheelbarrows, playing cards, trading nylon for corn, which cost a lot of corn. Faces wan and tapered, and everyone’s hair falling out. Amazing how hair and dust always find each other; the stuff blew across the tracks like briar.”
But I’m afraid it’s here, in the North Korea section, that the style finally fails, when distanced, crafted irony becomes insufficient or even inadequate. North Korea is hard to write about for a bunch of reasons — its isolation, its slow-moving humanitarian catastrophe — and its unknowability makes portraying that country a relatively high-stakes fictional game. But setting this against something like The Orphan Master’s Son, which also worked with misery and absurdity and the questions of fiction against North Korea, shows the limits of distance and craft.
April 12, 2013, 6:39am Comments