There are few Korean novels that have been translated into English, but I bet more will come. Kim Young-ha is leading the way; he is a literary rock star in his country and this literary thriller tells why.
Your Republic is Calling You is about a family man and minor entrepreneur in Seoul who is a dormant North Korean spy, apparently forgotten and left to his own devices, until the call comes in to return home.
The story traces the 24 hours following this surprise, not just for the protagonist but also his wife and 15-year old daughter, all of whom go through struggles that appear to be independent until the book’s climax.
Kim cleverly recreates, or reinterprets, the North-South standoff in the form of this family. The man and wife end up locked in animosity, living separate lives but forced to stay together by forces beyond their control.
By putting the reader in the mind of a North Korean who has lived half his life in the South, Kim draws a picture of how much these societies have changed, and yet the intangible ties that make theirs a shared experience. For a foreigner, it is very difficult to imagine life in North Korea as anything but regimented terror and hunger – realities Kim depicts but tempered by a humanity that outsiders rarely perceive.
He also illuminates the fact that life in the two Koreans used to be a lot more similar. The South was a military dictatorship run along recognizable lines, and the North maintained a basic level of industrialization and prosperity. But beginning in the 1980s, and accelerated in the 1990s, the North’s economy collapsed and hunger stalked the land, while the South’s development zoomed and democracy took hold.
Although I thought Republic was a solid novel, I don’t see a writer like Kim becoming as well known as the lit stars of Japan and India. The writing is too dark, because the reality is too dark. Salman Rushdie and Haruki Murakami explored plenty of dark corners by delving into magic realism and flights of fancy. Who can resist the delights of Midnight’s Children or Norwegian Wood? And even when these writers get sinister, they are often dealing with the past – with the Emergency of Indira Gandhi’s India, or the war or 1960s radicalism in Japan – and so are mellowed by nostalgia.
Korea’s nightmare has no end, its division is a throbbing open wound, and its writers don’t have the luxury of the magical. But it’s great fodder for writers. Republic is not a genre thriller, but the reality of Korea makes it read like one.