Having read Shin Kyun-sook’s rather excellent Please Look After Mother earlier in the year, I was keen to get my hands on some more modern Korean literature. This novel kept coming up in suggested reading lists, and its high concept starting point fascinated me – what happens when a North Korean sleeper agent living in modern Seoul is given the order to return to his rather less enticing homeland?
When Ki-yong receives a coded e-mail at work one morning, he realises that the dream is over. Sent to Seoul twenty years ago from Pyongyang as a sleeper agent, he has finally been given the order to return home. Why, though? No one has contacted him for years, and he has built a family with his wife and teenage daughter, rooting him to his current life. In the space of one day, Ki-yong must decide what he wants to do – stay, and betray his family, or go, and betray his homeland.
This is a fantastic concept for a novel. I’m impressed it’s taken this long for anyone to tackle it. The Korean Peninsula has a fascinating modern history, and for someone to actually talk about it as frankly as Kim does is quite impressive, particularly given the rather frosty official relation between the North and the South. An, unless I’m very much mistaken, Korea is now the only divided country in the world – both Germany and Vietnam have reunified – which means this novel couldn’t exists outside of this language. I always feel a little pretentious and ridiculous reading translated fiction, but here, it’s completely justified.
It’s an interesting conundrum that Ki-yong faces. For a start, he cannot be sure that the message he has received is legitimate. No one has contacted him for twenty years, not after his original mission was carried out, and so at first he is confused and wary. As it dawns on him, though, that the message is real – and indeed, the consequences of him ignoring the message are just as bad as him being discovered by Southern intelligence – he has to fully consider what it is that he wants. Either way, he is screwed – stay in the South, and probably be killed by Northern intelligence for disobeying the order, or return to a life in the North that is far less materially fulfilling than that of the South.
We also get POV chapters from Ki-yong’s wife, Ma-ri, and his teenage daughter, Hyon-mi. While they somewhat muddy the narrative with seemingly disconnected events, the day these two characters has is just as interesting. Ma-ri, in particular, is a fascinating character. Her affair with a young university student seems, at first, fairly harmless (well, as harmless as an affair can be), but when we discover that the thing he’s been persuading her to try all day is a threesome with his best friend, everything gets a little bit weird. She eventually consents, and what follows is perhaps one of the most awkward and uncomfortable sex scenes I’ve ever read. Truly, truly weird. Hyon-mi’s day, on the other hand, is rather humdrum, trying to navigate her way around a typical day at school, complete with bullies and gossip. Her sections do tend to drag, and take away from the main thrust of the novel. There is a sense from these two characters that the traditional Korea of old is well and truly gone, and the vices of the modern globalised world have arrived in Korea, and are here to stay.
I want to talk about the ending, because this book’s ending – the decision Ki-yong comes to – is the event around which the rest of the novel is based, so I can’t not. And if you want to read the book (and I strongly suggest you do), then you don’t want to know the ending.
As such: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD. I don’t think there was a way for Kim to have Ki-yong decide to do anything other than choose his life in the South. Partially because he is South Korean, and there’s no way he’d be advocating anyone’s return to the North, but also because of the construction of the novel. In literary terms, we are again and again reminded of the fact that Ki-yong’s life in the North was bad, not just materially, but also psychically. His mother, in particular, becomes this symbol of repression and madness that seems to encapsulate what happens to normal people in the most ridiculous of all modern regimes. She is pitiable, and indeed pitiful, but the fact that it is Ki-yong who discovers her suicide drives this point home.
Kudos, too, to Kim for making Ki-yong’s cover job a foreign film importer. The subtle dig at Kim Jong-il’s obsession with the film industry is a nice touch.
Your Republic is Calling You is a book that demands to be read. Set against a very specific cultural background, it deals with questions of identity in quite a complicated way. In many ways, this is a nature versus nurture debate – for Ki-yong, what will win out? His Northern upbringing, or the life he has come to lead in the South? There are complex questions being asked here, and while the answers may not be what one wants to hear, there’s a lot to take away.