“I wanted to paint the most intense story a 21st century Korean writer can imagine, with the point of the most dangerous knife,” Lee Eung-jun, the author of The Private Life of a Nation writes in the postscript after finishing the novel about eight years ago now.
Indeed, a dystopian future of a unified Korea has proven to be the most shunned fictional theme in South Korea, where the great cause of national unification still lies heavy and deep in people’s minds. A second novel on a similar theme, War, Our Wish, only appeared last November.
The Private Life of a Nation unfolds in a fictional 2016, five years after the South somehow annexed the North without military confrontation. When we remember that the novel was written in 2009, the implication becomes evident—unification might soon come, without notice, all of a sudden.
After unification, the South Korean government disbanded the Korean People’s Army without sufficient planning. Over one million North Korean servicemen lost their jobs in a day. Out of despair, helpless North Koreans including former KPA servicemen follow the luxurious nightlight into the Southern capital Seoul, making the city slum slummier.
Stray cats, which once swarmed all over the South, were almost exterminated. Men from the North caught them with nets and traps, skinned and roasted them in apartment playgrounds, and then ate them like soju snacks. The Southerners would never be grateful for the eradication of the stray cats. The spectacle was worse than a petrifying dream.
Tomorrow’s society cannot be separated from today’s. “Writing The Private Life a Nation often left me confused. While the book obviously depicts a post-unification future, it sometimes felt like I was writing about our own reality. That turned out to be the case,” Lee notes in his 2014 essay A Dark Forewritten Retrospect on a Unified Korea.
His insight shines throughout the grim scenery of a unified Korea. For example, the narrator in the novel comments further on the Northerners’ extermination of the stray cats:
Truth be told, even before unification children’s playgrounds in slums were for despondent adults, not kids. They would drink in daylight and curse the world. Only the faces and the deeds of the adults had changed, but the Southerners feigned innocence and frowned in disgust, as they always do in front of their own self-portrait of the past.
Some readers say the novel is so dark that it feels unrealistic. In Lee’s bleak vision of the unified Korea, drug abuse is widespread due to the activity of North Korean gangsters, who are former KPA servicemen. Since the North Korean social system collapsed right before unification, those whom the unified Korean government failed to register into its resident system became “burner men”, disposable human beings especially useful for shady business.
Yet we have since witnessed the Sewol ferry tragedy in 2014, which displayed how low a tepid bureaucracy can go. If you still feel that the novel is unrealistically dark, you might need to read the whole Sewol ferry story again.
However hard we try to minimize the risks of unification, Lee is quite sure it will be a disaster. He still remembers the ruin of East Germany when he visited right after the Berlin Wall collapsed and the shock he felt became the source of his bleak vision of a unified Korea.
East Germany’s situation, however, was distinctly better than that of North Korea today. Not only in relative terms but also in absolute terms—the penury of the North is among the most severe in the world. Worse yet, the enormous gap between the North and the South will birth countless social problems after unification.
Does this mean that the author is skeptical of or against unification? Quite the opposite. Lee believes that the tragedy will give an opportunity for the divided nation to at last break off the shackles of the 20th century and the by-product of the cold war.
“Suffering, thus, is sometimes necessary. One can change and heal oneself in the process of overcoming suffering,” Lee writes in the postscript. “I hope many things in the world, myself included, will undergo similar change to the protagonist of this novel.”
In fact, The Private Life of a Nation was his effort to transform himself. Disillusioned and weary of the Korean literary scene, which he’s been around since his debut as a poet at the age of 20, he sought to break away and attain a new life as an artist in the commercial film industry. The speedy plot development and the film noir-ish atmosphere indicate that he had a film adaptation in mind all along.
Lee proved himself as a film director when Lemon Tree, which he wrote and directed in 2008, was invited to the Asian American International Film Festival and the Paris Short Film Festival. He has now set out to direct the film adaptation of the novel himself.
While it remains to be seen whether or not his venture will succeed, it is remarkable to watch an already successful artist struggling to win a new life in a totally different field.
Lee once told me in person that it was important for him to start the novel with a quote from Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Along with his protagonist in the novel and a nation on the edge of the abyss that is unification, Lee seeks to make his own history. Which is rare to see in the post-modern literature of our time. And why he presents himself as a modernist.
The cold war may have ended in the West with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall but it lives on in the Korean peninsula in the form of barbed wire and landmines and in mutual hatred that divides a nation. The author’s hope is for that nation to finally overcome the wake of the cold war and to find its own path into the 21st century.
The Dissolve here presents a translation of the second chapter of the the novel, with further chapters coming soon.
The Private Life of a Nation : Chapter 2
“After days—after days—we shall meet across the River Jordan—”
3 pm, Sunday, April 10, 2016. Five years after the Republic of Korea annexed the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. A private cemetery and memorial park on the outskirts of Yongin, Gyeonggi Province. A coffin covered by a big North Korean flag was slowly being lowered into a deep pit.
“When we meet foregone brethren— high up in heaven—”
Several old women and a young pastor were singing a hymn, unstable in pitch and rhythm. They were brought here, as if kidnapped, for the funeral of a gangster, a former Korean People’s Army soldier they’d never known. No wonder they were so frightened.
“Human suffering will end— and there wouldn’t be tears of farewell—”
The members of the Taedonggang gang were also standing around the pit, looking rather uncomfortable. Unfamiliar with Christian funerals, they didn’t seem to know what was going on, and their stiff looks were quite a sight. None of them big or beefy like South Korean gangsters, but they seemed menacing, with fierce eyes and high cheekbones. They knew nothing of religion. Christianity especially had been the subject of brutal distortion in North Korea’s elementary and middle school textbooks: A fairy plucks an apple from a tree out of hunger. A missionary turns up and ties the fairy to the tree. Then he writes “thief” on her forehead with a brush soaked in hydrochloric acid. A missionary named Appenzeller founds a hospital in Pyongyang. He then performs medical experiments on human bodies in the basement and sells organs to the United States. These were in no way metaphors. The textbooks recorded them as facts.
Films weren’t much different. Missionaries were often portrayed as vampires in black robes. The only active religious group in North Korea, at least in name, was Chondogyo, but it was a subordinate of the Workers’ Party of Korea, only used for reunion events for separated families in the South and North. In 1988, construction work began at a park in Pyongyang, and an enormous cross was erected one day on top of the finished building. The citizens of Pyongyang were shocked but the church turned out to be nothing but a PR stunt for an international event. Occasionally, there were rumors about the State Security Department busting underground religious meetings and executing all participants. In any case, even reunification was not enough to drive out the gross images imprinted deep in the minds of the North Korean gangsters since their days in nursery.
“After days— after days— we shall meet across the River Jordan— Amen—”
When the coffin was safely lowered down into the pit, the pastor wiped sweat from his temple with a handkerchief before he began to pray.
“Our, our Father which oversees haps and mishaps of life and death. Father, we are here today to inter the body of our brother Lim Byung-mo. Umm, the flesh comes from dust and goes back to dust while the spirit goes back to the Lord for it came from the Lord.”
The old women, who had been glancing uncomfortably at the Taedonggang thugs, seemed suddenly emboldened, hands held tightly in each other’s. The Holy Ghost had descended on them.
Fearful of the fearless old women who had not long left to live, the young pastor who had his life ahead of him closed his eyes tighter.
“In the days of your return, even those who didn’t believe, not to mention those who believed, will be tried before the Lord. Then, then will everything that has been done in this world, both good and evil, be wholly revealed.”
“Um, we believe that the deceased is now in the Father’s embrace, where there are no tears, no sighs. And…”
“Oh, Lord, amen!”
“Umm, and so, we… give us hope that we will all be resurrected on the last day and meet in joy again in heaven in eternity…”
Cho Myung-do was looking down on all this, standing alone on a hill in the cemetery.
“Great. Just great.”
Muttering to himself, Cho was about to light a cigarette in his mouth when he noticed something shimmering in the distance, beyond the sunshine. When it became clear that the vague, backlit figure moving toward the funeral was Ri Gang, Cho frowned.
As the Taedonggang thugs set to greet him with a bow, Ri held up his hand to stop them. The gangsters once again returned to their uncomfortable silence. Cho’s frown deepened.
As though he’d been fully aware of where Cho was, Ri headed up the cemetery hill. When Ri flicked his gaze from the ground straight to Cho, Cho put on a friendly smile.
“I thought you’d be back in a few more days. It’s been about a month, right?”
Ri stood by Cho without giving an answer.
“How was it in Pyongyang?” asked Cho.
“You didn’t stop by the company, did you.”
“I called them on the way and came straight here.”
“It’s Detective Moon.”
“Byung-mo entertained Lieutenant Koh’s team at Silver Chair. Seems that Detective Moon got drunk, calling the girls names like Nork bitches. Apparently, Byung-mo lost his temper and turned on him, and people tried to stop him and things went crazy. They said Byung-mo left first, still angry, and Moon left moments later, and here we are.”
“You’re telling me that Detective Moon killed Byung-mo?”
“You think we treated the police to booze in broad daylight?”
“I didn’t think Detective Moon had that kind of thing in him.”
“Cowards are always more dangerous. Byung-mo was found dead near Il Hwa’s apartment. Moon probably went ahead and waited for him there. Koh went to the scene when someone called the police, and turned out it was Byung Mo. He just delivered the body to Boss.”
Ri stood in silence.
“Our boys dumped Moon into a crematory oven the next day without Boss’s permission. Seemed like he’d given up already, they said. He didn’t even try to run when they called his name. They cut his throat right there, in an empty alley. After what he did to Kil-soo last time, he had it coming. But don’t worry. We took care of everything.”
“Anyway, Boss confiscated all the white bellflowers from the members. He told me to get Byung-mo’s yesterday, so I rummaged through his stuff and found them on the inside of the tire cover. I was like, what the heck was he thinking, putting the drugs in a transparent plastic container? I never thought he’d be the type, but it seems he’d been planning on selling them behind our backs. Sealed them tight three or four times. If Boss hadn’t told us not to touch them, I’d have just thrown them out. Do you have any stashed up? You should come clean.”
“I don’t have any. Why does he want them back? Are we dropping that business?”
“He probably heard something from the Boy Shaman. Right after that, the cops came. It’s rather uncanny. But I mean, I know he’s a shaman and all, but that brat talks down to people much older than him. He doesn’t feel human and it fucking scares me.”
“Wait, a transparent plastic container?”
“About this big. It was packed with white bellflowers. It must have been worth a fortune.”
“What’s happening over there?” Ri asked.
“We brought them here from a local prayer house. Figures, comrade Lim was a Christian. It was Boss’s order. At least a funeral should leave nothing wanting, or so he says. You know, he’s strangely compassionate in these kinds of things. Anyway, this is the first one I’ve seen, and it’s odd. And there might be other churchgoing reactionaries down there. The South Korean church seems much scarier than the Workers’ Party.”
After a brief pause, Cho went on.
“Be careful. The hostess at the Silver Chair’s furious, what with a gun fight going down a few weeks before that. Had a hard time calming her down. She’s one feisty bitch, that one.”
“Why isn’t Il-hwa here? Her pimp is dead.”
“Why the hell do you have so many questions? I just told you that we cremated Moon. This never happened! It’s not that she didn’t come. She couldn’t come.”
Down below, people began to shovel dirt onto the coffin.
“There’s no escape from the pit,” said Ri.
“You’re not scared of it?”
Cho stood in silence.
“I am,” Ri said.
“I didn’t actually mean what I said, man. You’re that scared of their church?”
Ri stared at Cho, whose vacant eyes made him sigh. After a pat on Cho’s shoulder, Ri left. Though he didn’t know why, Cho was seized by the familiar yet annoying feeling that he’d been snubbed. He shot daggers into Ri’s back as he walked down the hill.
The old women were proselytizing the Taedonggang thugs, telling them to come to church and be redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. It was so sudden. The young pastor seemed on the verge of martyrdom, trying to calm the old Mary Magdalenes who burned with the fire of the Holy Ghost. Even the grave diggers stopped shoveling dirt into the grave to watch the absurdity.
“The pit has no escape,” Ri murmured as he passed by. “No escape.”
Does heaven offer an escape? Ri wondered. These women spoke of it but they seemed drained of all life. However happy you were, it wouldn’t be heaven if you couldn’t get out, he thought. It would be a pit. From afar, Cho looked down at Ri, whose silhouette was blurred by the smoke from his cigarette.
A sunny spring day in the unified Korea in 2016. A man was buried, encircled by other men. The man who had died and the men who were yet alive knew each other well, but no one cried.
— Translated by Subin Kim
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