One-Minute Book Reviews

April 28, 2010

True Stories of Defectors From a Communist State: ‘Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’

A foreign correspondent describes life in one of the world’s most repressive dictatorships in a finalist for the National Book Award for nonfiction

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. By Barbara Demick. Spiegel & Grau, 314 pp., $26.

By Janice Harayda

In Nothing to Envy, Barbara Demick adapts the structure that her writing teacher John Hersey used in his great Hiroshima, which tells the stories of six people who survived the bomb that fell on their city. But she makes the form her own in this wonderful book about a half dozen North Koreans who fled the hereditary communist dictatorship of Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il.

Demick focuses on the early 1990s and afterward, when North Korea “faded to black” after the Berlin Wall fell and the old Soviet Union ceased to prop up its economy. Unable to maintain its power grid, the country lost most of its electricity. People couldn’t watch television, read at night, or go to movies or restaurants. “Even in parts of the showcase capital of Pyongyang,” she says, “you can stroll down the middle of a main street at night without being able to see the buildings on either side.”

The Kims tightened their grip to keep residents from learning the extent of their oppression. North Koreans could not use the Internet, watch movies and television programs not made by the state, travel to nearby towns without a permit, or call or write to relatives in South Korea. And during the famine of the 1990s, many could not eat. An estimated 600,000 to 2 million North Koreans died because the regime would not work with governments that might have helped. Many survived by eating grass, corn husks, or ground pine bark.

Demick shows the catastrophic effects of all of it by tracing the lives of four women and two men from the city of Chongjin, all of whom escaped to South Korea by dint of forged passports, bribed border guards, or other cloak-and-dagger efforts. Some of her most moving stories involve the legions of sick, orphaned, or abandoned children whom two of her subjects, a pediatrician and a kindergarten teacher, were powerless to help.

“Facing a food shortage, many North Korean families conducted a brutal triage of their own households – they denied themselves and often elderly grandparents food in order to keep the younger generation alive,” Demick writes. “That strategy produced an unusual number of orphans, as the children were often the last ones left of entire families that had perished.”

Many of the homeless found their way to the train station in Chongjin: “That was where people went when they had nothing left and no place else to go. It wasn’t quite like giving up and lying down by the side of the road. The movement of the trains created an illusion of purpose that kept hope alive against all odds.”

One man told Demick that on some days, the cleaning staff removed as many as 30 bodies from the station. It is far from the worst of the catatastophes described in Nothing to Envy. To get such stories, Demick had to earn great trust from defectors who had grown up under one of the world’s most xenophobic regimes. On the evidence of this book, she deserves every bit of it.

Best line: “North Korea was chronically short of chemical fertilizer and needed to use human excrement since there were few farm animals. Each family had to provide a bucketful each week, delivered to a warehouse miles away.” This requirement existed under Kim Il-sung, the communist dictator who led North Korea from 1948–1994.

Worst line: Demick says in the last line of Nothing to Envy that the lives of her subjects “like Korea itself, remain works in progress.” But by the time you get there, you can’t hold the cliché against her.

Recommendation? Go for it, book clubs.

Published: December 2009

Furthermore: Nothing to Envy has made the longlist for the 2010 Samuel Johnson Award for nonfiction and was a National Book Awards nonfiction finalist.

Read an excerpt from Nothing to Envy here.

About the author: Demick is the Beijing bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in Ridgewood, NJ, and wrote: Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. She satirizes American literary culture on her Fake Book News (@fakebooknews) page on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 10, 2010

A Review of the ‘The Appointment,’ a Novel by Herta Müller, Winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:37 pm
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A Romanian-born laureate evokes the terrors of the Ceauşescu regime

The Appointment: A Novel. By Herta Müller. Translated by Michael Hulse and Philip Boehm. Picador, 214 pp., $15, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

Herta Müller might seem to have little except her birthplace in common with the Romanian-born playwright Eugène Ionesco. But The Appointment shares some of its literary DNA with Rhinocéros, Ionesco’s haunting allegory of conformity, built on the life of a man who watches in horror as the people around him turn into rhinoceroses. In that absurdist play, the hero fights to retain his individuality as others devolve into beasts. In Müller’s novel, the characters have all but lost the battle for their humanity. They are crushed, driven mad, or killed by the tyranny of Nicolae Ceauşescu and his secret police.

The Appointment takes the form of an interior monologue by a young seamstress who was fired from her factory job for slipping notes that said “Marry me” into the pockets of men’s white linen suits bound for Italy and signing each slip with her name and address. She intended, or so she says, to wed the first man who answered, and she undergoes repeated and dehumanizing interrogations by the secret police about the matter. Were her notes to unknown men a sign of insanity or a reasonable approach to the crushing realities of life in postwar Romania?

That question is one of many that go unanswered. As she rides a tram to her latest interrogation, the young narrator drifts mentally back and forth between her fellow passengers and the torturous events of her life and that of her family and friends under the brutal Ceauşescu regime. The plot has little suspense, narrative thrust, and, at times, coherence. And Müller’s writing resembles that of Joyce Carol Oates: You read it for virtues other than elegantly turned phrases.

But The Appointment offers sharp glimpses of a world few Americans know and fewer still know well. In Müller’s Romania, residents can trust no one. They risk death if they try to flee to Hungary. And they must live without necessities such adequate food or clothing if they stay. Adults borrow children so they can claim extra rations of meat or milk. Factory seamstresses make elegant dresses for export but may buy only the rejects, stained by oil from sewing machines, twice a year — before International Labor Day and the Day of Liberation From the Yoke of Fascism.

Against such bleakness, you question whether putting notes in pockets of strangers’ suits was as depraved as it at first seems. The narrator of The Appointment appears perfectly lucid when she reflects, in a poignant observation late in the book, “As long as I was still young, I wanted to go to the kind of beautiful country the clothes were exported to.” Müller’s achievement is to make you see why, in some circumstances, it might be an act consummate sanity to slip into strangers’ suit pockets notes that say, “Marry me.”

Best line: “You don’t have to be particularly bad off to think: This can’t be all the life I get.”

Worst line: ”A breeze was rustling in the ash trees, I listened to the leaves, perhaps Paul was listening to the water.”

Published: 2001 (first U.S. edition), September 2002 (Picador paperback 2002)

Reading-group recommendation? The Appointment would be a tough sell to many book clubs. But it has barely 200 pages that, if lacking in high-octane narrative drive, are tautly written. It might appeal most to clubs that enjoy books in translation or on social-justice issues, including reading groups based at universities or in churches or synagogues.

Furthermore: Muller, a Romanian-born resident of Germany, won the 2009 Nobel Prize in literatureThe Complete Review has biographical facts about Müller and links to other reviews.

Janice Harayda satirizes American literary culture and the publishing industry at www.twitter.com/FakeBookNews.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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