Tuesday, June 14, 2011

James Church's North Korea

A while ago I wrote a a post about James Church's novel  A Corpse in the Koryo.  Set in North Korea, Church's novels feature the dedicated Inspector O.  O is apolitical in a sea of back-stabbing politics.  O is shielded by his grandfather's reputation, a famous North Korean revolutionary, but he's always hovering at the edge of that protective shield.   

Although Inspector O is an interesting, multifaceted character, to me the key protagonist is North Korea itself.  In this surreal society, cases aren't cases, and mysteries aren't meant to be unravelled.  Everyone is paranoid, society is deprived, and Inspector O never has the tools to solve the mysteries presented to him.  That doesn't matter too much since his superiors usually want the mysteries buried rather than solved.  O spends most of his time trying to decipher the dangerous, ever-shifting power balance within the police department, and keeping himself safe from internal threats while he doggedly seeks the truth. 

Besides being a respected revolutionary, O's grandfather was a woodworker, with a passion and sensitivity for wood.  O has inherited this harmony with wood, and carries around bits of wood in his pocket, like worry beads to be rubbed in times of trouble.  Depending on the trouble, he matches the wood to the occasion.  His grandfather taught him that different woods have different personalities.  For instance chestnut is 'touchy and ill-tempered...but... beautiful, lustrous, hard, calm in the storm.'  

The Man with the Baltic Stare is my favourite book so far.  O comes out of 'retirement' (or is it banishment?) from his remote hilltop cabin to be thrown into baffling swirls of intrigue in Pyongyang, as everyone prepares for the rumoured reunification of North and South Korea. When my husband and I toured Korea, we met people who felt strongly on both sides of that question.  Our main guide considered reunification as a cultural necessity, and he was very moved when we visited the demilitarization zone.  Another guide in the city took the pragmatic view that reviving the North would swamp South Korea and send it reeling back into poverty.  There was an interesting article in The Economist some month ago, comparing the situation of the two Koreas with that of the two Germanys before reunification.  This chart was telling:

 There are proportionately more people in North Korea compared to South Korea than there were in East Germany compared to West Germany, and the difference economically is staggering compared to the differences between East and West Germany.  This book deftly describes the other nations with vested interests in the country after reunification.

Author James Church is a 'former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia'.  I haven't been able to find detailed biographical information about him, but an entry in Wikipedia states that he was over 60 in 2009.  I hope he's still writing books, because I am hungry for more Inspector O. 

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