A while ago I stopped doing monthly reports of books I read, because what had started as a fun exercise in combing through my thoughts had turned into something with a foolish consistency. But I really have to say something about this book.
(786 reviews on Amazon and still a solid five stars. That should tell you something!)
I’m a 38-year-old dude. By common wisdom I should have a very stoic appearance, generally. But I had to pause in reading this book, put it down, and sit there and cry for a little while. Not once, but four times. At least four times. This interwoven stories in this book astounded me, revolted me, and humbled me. At first I had a little bit of trouble keeping the interview subjects straight because the narrative jumps between them, but it didn’t matter that much, since the effect - and the possible intention of the book - is to blur the experiences of these people together, into one highly detailed tapestry of political disenfranchisement, psychological abuse, and appalling and abject poverty.
We are talking serious poverty. "Children attempting to eat the bark off the trees" poverty. "People fishing through animal shit for undigested kernels of corn" sort of poverty. We are talking "my shirt has no sleeves because I tore them off to use as menstrual rags", "I just had sex with a stranger for half a fistful of rice", "frogs are now extinct in North Korea because we ate all of them" sort of poverty.
North Korea remains largely opaque to Western perceptions. The country is hard to see into, and what one does see is culturally difficult to understand. "Nothing To Envy" starts out interesting enough, but then guides you steadily down the path of interesting to somewhere much more intense. It’s an almost whiplash-inducing attitude adjustment, and it carries additional impact by describing the inner lives - the thought processes - of people who have been born and raised in the midst of a gigantic cult disguised as a government. North Koreans do not labor under the bootheel of one man so much as under their own collective hallucination, competing with each other to swallow the biggest share of cognitive dissonance. When things went very bad, very few of them managed to escape.
Some of the memories recounted by these escapees are impactful in unexpected ways. One woman describes how she defected to China and then eventually to South Korea, and through her friends in China, was able to send a messenger back into North Korea to contact her mother. Her mother, a dedicated North Korean citizen despite a lifetime of suffering, accepted the offer to visit her daughter, even though it meant temporarily crossing the border into China - a risky and difficult journey.
The mother arrived at the Chinese safehouse, well across the border, and was astounded to see a color television, a refrigerator, and an electric rice cooker - a particularly surprising instrument since back in North Korea electricity was strictly rationed and it was illegal to use it for cooking. The daughter called her on the phone and confessed that she was in South Korea - not China - and wanted her mother to join her there. Her mother was furious, and refused the offer, and swore that she would rest at the safehouse for a few days and then go straight back to North Korea like a good citizen, and good riddance to her daughter.
She rested at the house, eating the plentiful food, and watching the color television. One night as she slept in the bed she dreamed about her recent past in North Korea. Her only possessions had been a blanket, an aluminum pot, and two spoons. She’d watched helplessly, as her husband and her son slowly starved to death before her eyes in the one-room shack they called home, going from delirious, to bedridden, to silent corpses. She was awakened the next morning by the automated "ding" of the electric rice cooker in the other room. "I’ve spent 57 years suffering ... for no reason," she thought. "I’ve wasted my life."
That was her epiphany - the "ding" of an electric rice cooker. She never returned to North Korea.
What I find shocking on a personal level is that this was happening in the late 1990’s. At the time I was whooping it up in college in Santa Cruz, stuffing cafeteria food into my face and worrying more about my inane romantic life than anything material. By the North Korean metric I was living better than the emperor himself, especially if you factor in my access - to things like the university library, diverse foods, unrestricted travel, and eligible, intelligent young ladies. I fully admit that I didn’t take my education as seriously as I should have, and though I did have some idea of how lucky I was, I didn’t understand just how much luckier I was at that very moment than, say, the two million North Koreans who wasted away during that time.
Almost no one at UCSC - certainly no one I talked to, instructors or students - was aware of North Korea. The hot political issue on campus was "Free Mumia", a series of protests about a writer being held in prison on a suspicious murder charge over in Philadelphia. I remember feeling exasperated that so many people around me claimed to have sufficient grasp of the facts to have such a strong opinion, and that of all the things they were agitating for, it was for release of a convicted murderer nine states away.
But in retrospect, I think the capriciousness of those campus politics was a reflection of a less flattering truth: For all the chest-pounding I saw from fellow college students about our ability - and obligation - to change the world, we were not actually all that powerful. Not at the time. There was a whole lot we just didn’t know, and the networks we relied on for information were very distorted by - perhaps even defined by - the personal interests of those who ran them. ("If you're not outraged, you’re not paying attention," I’ve heard it said. I suspect many people feel that outrage itself is sufficient, and that paying close attention is optional.) But maybe "Free Mumia" at UCSC wasn't so much about the prisoner himself as it was about a whole lot of middle-class white kids denouncing their parents’ collective racism - real or assumed.
That opinion makes it pretty obvious that the college experience is half a lifetime away for me, and that the years have not been kind to the memories. The biggest thing I feel right now is a kind of survivor’s guilt; or something like that even though I am not even a survivor of anything in particular. There was no famine to endure or gestapo to resist over here in California. A whole bunch of people lost homes they didn’t technically own, but I wasn’t one of them. I faced a sobering medical issue a few years ago but have very fortunately recovered from it. Compared to the stories I’ve read in this book, my life has been an absolute cakewalk. And, curse my ridiculous human nature, I still regularly find myself scheming for some way to make it even better, even easier, even more fantastic, because for my whole life there has been a thread of discontent woven through me that keeps turning up as my circumstances change and then stabilize.
(My latest hare-brained idea is a two-month bicycle trip 1600 miles through New Zealand. If I’m clever I can save up the money to pay for it all in advance while still covering the mortgage and putting in adequate time at work.)
How can I pursue such flippant things with a clear conscience? Or does it make more sense for me to go in the other direction - and try to drop this "survivor’s guilt" completely? Live well as a kind of revenge against all the poverty my ancestors experienced? What would someone who managed to escape from North Korea do? I’d like to say they would do exactly the same thing, but that’s awfully Western of me, isn’t it, opting for the greater consumption… I should just keep paying down my mortgage.
Reading this book also reminded me how dependent we are on our peers and parents to construct our reality for us, or at least the framework that we can hang reality on, and reminded me that things could be very different for me - inside and out. I recently read another book called Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church and am startled by the similarities I found in North Korea. I think all the enemies of the new modern era, of the next four or five decades, can be collected under one word: Cults. Organizations that thrive only by depriving their members of almost all outside information.
A little outside information could have saved a million lives in North Korea.