Monday, January 11, 2016

[Book Review] Hyeonseo Lee - The Girl With Seven Names

Reading about North Korean people is like walking on a tiny path through quicksand at night. Surely, there's some thrill to it, but one wrong step and you may end up checking whether the sand has any bottom. The pitfalls of such books are easy to point out - we associate ourselves with oppressed people, those who desperately want to run or those who have no say and no opinion, being stripped of their human traits. Some weird people find other meanings - how wonderful Juche is, whole politics of songun and society "unpolluted by capitalism". It's best to deal with books about North Korea the same way we deal with every other documentary or autobiographical work.

   In the last few weeks I've read also another book on North Korea (Suki Kim, Without You There Is No Us. My time with the sons of North Korea's elite, 2014), but told from a totally different perspective. From the point of an outsider, a woman from South Korea who grew up in US to become a journalist. And this approach was very visible, which for me ruined the book. Did not like the language, did not like the style and most of all - did not like her attitude towards everything she met. Her tone was condescending. 
Both books were written in English, in the means to reach a broader audience but whereas Kim Suki used the language for years and she acquired a bilingual fluency, it still wasn't familiar for Lee Hyeonseo. Maybe that's why the latter's book sounds more genuine.

   Lee narrative starts in the 70's when her parents met on a train ride and fell in love, which was (and still is) for North Korean people. They had to conquer many obstacles every makjang from the South could use and more to be together, including Lee's mother marriage to another man, having her and divorcing him. This was possible because, and Lee doesn't cover it up, her family was high up in songbun caste system. They ate fish everyday, they had privileges, her father was a high ranking officer in the army.
She's honest. Painfully, uncomfortably honest in her depictions.
Sometimes I didn't know whether I should like her, pity her or admire her. She was selfish at times but exactly in this the problem lied - she felt her individual self, which prompted her to do everything she wanted. Even if this hurt her father and she couldn't forgive herself how she acted in years before his untimely, tragic death.

   Her language is clear and simple, which makes the depictions of North Korea more terrifying than the most elaborated metaphors. And we have to remember she was one of the privileged kids, her mother traded illegally, her father was high ranking officer (which didn't save him from the torture afterall), once when visiting her friend, Lee was offended the girl didn't offer her to eat a snack. Turned out - the family of said girl was starving. She paints the years of 1994-1997, the years of the biggest famine in North Korean history, as something from the surrealistic nightmare. She mentions people who died from hunger, including their distant relatives. She compares people to living dead, walking aimlessly through naked fields and deforested hills, dying on the side of the road. Slowly her conscience awoke from the slumber imposed by a totalitarian regime.

  She told about Bowibu, a much feared secret police, that had every prerogative of a judge, jury and executioner at once. About obligatory self-reflection sessions in school, during which every kid had to point somebody doing wrongful deeds and reflect on their own behavior. About public executions, and the spectators - witnessing the execution was compulsory for everyone. About illegal Chinese tv channels and their dramas. About girls being taken by Bowibu for listening to South Korean pop songs. About crying after Kim Il-seong died (1994) and students were punished for faking the despair. Lee faked, but as she says, she was only happy no one discovered this.

  Her journey takes us through various parts of North Korea (from Hyesan to Pyeongyang), China, Shanghai, Laos, South Korea and the open world. We may like her or not, but I, for once, admire her will. She stated that she ceased to like herself a long time ago.
And yes, she did use seven names.

  This book should be read by everyone who is interested in the "inside" life in North Korea. I hope I didn't spoil much, only offered glimpses into one of the most interesting memoirs concerning North Korea. The events depicted here are fresh, it happened few years ago. And that makes it even more surreal.

Hyeonseo Lee - Dziewczyna o siedmiu imionach, Prószyński i S-ka, 2015,
Pictures: and