Mongolia: a high point

There were two choices in the frame for Mongolia. One was a collection of folk tales picked up at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar by writer friend Emily Bullock. The other was Galsan Tschinag’s The Blue Sky, a book recommended by fellow literary globetrotter Paul.

The folk tales sounded tempting, particularly as, weighing in at just 119 very small pages and with lots of illustrations, they would probably have taken less than an hour to read. However, when I found out more about Galsan Tschinag’s extraordinary life story, my attention was hooked.

Born as Irgit Schynykbajoglu Dshurukuwaa (his name in Tuvan), Tschinag adopted German as his written language during his time studying at the University of Leipzig in the sixties before becoming a singer, storyteller, poet, shaman and Tuvan chief. Angered by the impact of the Communist regime on his people, he led a huge caravan of Tuvans back to their ancestral home in the Altai Mountains and campaigns for the rights of the group to this day. He also apparently managed to cure himself of a life-threatening heart condition using his shamanic powers.

By the time I’d finished reading about him, I couldn’t help feeling that Galsan Tschinag was running Tete-Michel Kpomassie a close second for the title of ‘writer I’d most like to meet’.

Drawing heavily on Tschinag’s childhood, The Blue Sky is the coming of age story of a young shepherd boy in the Altai Mountains. On the face of it, he and his family pursue the nomadic herding ways of life that Tuvans have practised for generations; yet far away in the interior of Mongolia change is afoot with the influence of the Soviet Union prompting seismic shifts that will ripple out to the farthest corners of the country and alter the boy’s life for ever.

Few writers inhabit their characters’ thoughts as convincingly as Tschinag does. Capturing the wonder and weirdness of childhood, he has a gift for bringing us into his protagonist’s hopes and dreams. We share in the boy’s fantasies of becoming a baj by building up a flock of more than 1,000 sheep and his wacky plan to count to that number by assembling 100 people and ticking off their fingers one by one, and they feel real and immediate, and strangely reminiscent of our own childhood imaginings. In addition, we recognise the quirky literalism of childhood – which leaves the boy watching his relatives in bewilderment for signs of their necks twisting after a comment from his mother that their heads have been turned – and the power of make-believe which transforms an eagle sighting into a full-blown attack when the boy tells his parents about his day.

This sense of recognition helps Tschinag bring us close to customs and practices that might otherwise feel irreconcilably alien and strange. Identifying with the boy, we can inhabit his world, where sniffing people is a way of expressing affection, children smoke pipes and urine is a remedy for sore eyes. As Tschinag describes the family’s formal adoption of the mysterious old lady who declares herself the boy’s grandma and the extraordinary rituals carried out to honour and respect animals and nature, it is as though we are sitting round the fire in the yurt with the characters, swapping stories.

As a result it is impossible not to feel connected to and invested in this world – and to bristle like Arsylang the dog at the approach of the outside influences set to destroy it. From very personal instances – such as the return of the boy’s older brother and sister from boarding school for the holidays and the awkwardness that springs up between the once-inseparable siblings – to news that the Mongolian Old White Man of traditional New Year’s celebrations has morphed into the Russian Father Frost, we see everywhere the erosion of this rare way of life. And when his father’s attempt to embrace modern hunting techniques backfires tragically towards the end of the narrative, we feel the full weight of the boy’s grief, not only for his personal loss, but for the passing of belonging, identity and meaning itself.

Achingly sad and yet passionately life-affirming, this book is up there with the very best. It is an extraordinary achievement by a writer skilled at celebrating both the unique and the universal. To read it is to marvel at the variety, beauty and strangeness of the human race – and to feel privileged to be part of it.

The Blue Sky (Der blaue Himmel) by Galsan Tschinag, translated from the German by Katharina Rout (Milkweed Editions, 2006)

North Korea: keeping the faith

There have been some intriguing books published about North Korea in recent years. From Barbara Demick’s outstanding Nothing to Envy to Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14, an extract of which was published last month in the Guardian, there is no shortage of harrowing survivors’ accounts of life in the world’s most secretive state.

When I was starting to prepare for this project late last year, several people suggested that I contact the South Korean embassy in London to see if they knew of dissident literature by North Korean escapees that I could read. I was on the point of doing so when it occurred to me that, while this might well yield some fascinating texts, it would bring me no closer to knowing anything about literature inside North Korea itself. What did people in Pyongyang read? What stories were household classics in the land of the then-Dear Leader? I had to find out.

With this in mind, I visited the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s website and dropped them a line. I was delighted to receive an email back from Spanish-born North Korean Special Delegate Alejandro Cao de Benos (the first foreigner ever to be granted North Korean citizenship and allowed to work for the government) and the two of us had an extraordinary exchange about what books might be available for me to read in English. You can read a full account of our correspondence in the blog post I wrote for the Huffington Post at the time.

I was planning to give Mr Cao de Benos another try after the dust had settled from Kim Jong Il’s death, however in the interim I heard from Nicholas Mercury, founder of North Korea Books, and what he said intrigued me. He had been prompted to get into North Korean literature and subsequently start his business selling rare books in English from the DPRK after reading My Life and Faith, a memoir by Korean Army war correspondent and ardent DPRK patriot Ri In Mo. He commended it to me as a text that contained ‘a point of view completely unknown in the West…that of utter love and devotion and sacrifice for a country, political system, and especially leadership, that (most) of the rest of the world prefers to despise and hate’.

I needed no further encouragement to give it a try and was delighted when the book arrived from an address in Beijing, accompanied by a DVD featuring subtitled extracts from DPRK films, military displays, dances and marching songs.

Telling the story of Ri’s early affinity for the DPRK’s ideology, his capture in 1952 and alleged 34 years of torture and imprisonment in South Korea ‘in blatant violation of the Geneva Convention’, and triumphal return to his homeland in 1993, My Life and Faith provides a fascinating insight into North Korea. At times extremely gripping, with overtones of jail literature by the likes of Albie Sachs and Nelson Mandela – to whom Ri is compared in the introduction – it presents a thought-provoking perspective on national identity and Western attitudes to the motherland. ‘It is not until they take off the colour glasses of “anti-communism” that they understand it’, he writes.

The human touches make the book. From the portrait of life in North Korea both before and after partition – where ‘widow kidnapping’ was once rife and many families were too poor to afford clothes and lived holed up in their houses ashamed to receive guests – to the descriptions of Ri’s wife sitting next to him as he writes, complaining about his old-fashioned turns of phrase, the sense of the man behind the narrative is strong.

These details win Ri credibility when he launches into broader ideological attacks, often citing statistics and events that few readers would have the means to verify. His tirades against ‘the US imperialists and Syngman Rhee puppet clique’ often have a familiar feel as they chime in closely with accusations levelled at the North Korean regime by the Western media. So we hear allegations of South Korean historians conveniently omitting or twisting facts, ‘lies’ from UN representatives, pro-Western propaganda in films and books, and a fascinating account of Ri’s interactions with the world’s media after his release in South Korea:

‘While talking with them, I found that there were differences in the way they expressed my ideas, and they seemed to take great effort to alter my words. When I said “people” by habit, they changed it to “the masses”[…] While altering my words in this way, the young journalists expressed the regrets [sic], “If the words used in north Korea are used, readers may find fault with them, so they should be altered somewhat. I’m sorry’


Many journalists with newspapers, radio and the foreign press visited me. They seemed to have not understood me well. There were instances of seriously distorted information.’

At times, the rhetoric undoes itself by too obviously pulling the tricks it ascribes to Western states. Ri regales us with the story of the South Korean soldier, a ‘victim of propaganda’ who killed himself rather than allow himself to fall into North Korean hands because he had heard exaggerated reports of the nation’s cruelty only to reel off a hysterical catalogue of Western atrocities in the next paragraph. The mawkish poems ‘Dedicated to the Dear Leader’ that pepper the narrative, the repeated assertions about the ‘deep solicitude’ of the nation’s leader and the accounts of the miracles that took place on the death of Kim Il Sung also have a distancing effect.

Nevertheless, I was impressed by how persuasive and compelling the book was. Now and then, in the face of its heartfelt appeals, I felt the see-saw tipping and found myself scrabbling for arguments to redress the balance. Then I remembered that, as Mr Cao de Benos confirmed to me, variations on this story – books ‘showing honour, loyalty and sacrifice for the motherland’ – are the only narratives allowed in the DPRK. Reading the world would not be an option there. And no amount of passion, rhetoric or idealism can make up for that.

My Life and Faith by Ri In Mo, translated from the Korean by ? (Foreign Languages Publishing House, Pyongyang, Juche 86 (1997))

Romania: he ain’t heavy…

Over the last decade, the world’s been going crazy for collaborative novels. Whether it’s ambitious, international ventures such as Penguin’s abortive A Million Penguins blog or lighthearted projects between two or three people, more and more writers are taking advantage of the opportunities the internet offers to work together.

Joining forces with a writer you’ve never met before is one thing, but what about working with someone you’ve known all your life? How would you pick your way through the labyrinth of your relationship to produce something intelligible and entertaining for a reader who’s never met you and knows nothing of the thousand jokes, frustrations and secrets you’ve built up between you over your time on Earth?

It sounds like a minefield to me, so when Bucharest UN Information Centre officer Cristina got in touch through a friend to recommend The Baiut Alley Lads by award-winning author Filip Florian and his younger brother Matei, I had to see how they’d tackled it.

Set in the 1970s and 1980s during the communist era, the novel paints a powerful picture of life in a totalitarian society as seen through children’s eyes. The brothers play versions of themselves in the book, narrating alternative chapters and frequently casting the reader in the role of parent/referee as they correct and challenge each other’s versions of events. ‘What guarantee do I have, as a younger brother, that Filip is not mixing everything up again?’ laments Matei at one point.

This playful combativeness is nowhere more apparent than in the brothers’ accounts of the make-believe worlds they retreat into when reality becomes too grim. In a universe where ‘trolleybuses really could change into bison’ and fantastical events make ‘the world stir from its givenness’, anything can happen and there can be no definitive version of truth. ‘Brothers can write a book together, but they cannot meet the same angels and pixies at the same time’, observes Filip.

This fluidity of truth crashes up against the rigid structures of the regime with surprising and often joyful results. Unconcerned by Communism, except where it touches their own lives, the boys see politics as a matter of whether or not you are allowed to play in goal or buy sweets. Instead of the Homeland and the Party, there are the crosspatch school teacher and the peaked cap of the officer who visits their mother.

Now and then, the free movement of the narrative between imagined, ‘real’, past and present worlds can be disorientating. For a British reader with little knowledge of Romanian history like me, this was compounded by my ignorance of a lot of the events sketched into the background. With my cultural compass of very little use, it was difficult to relax into the flow of the narrative as I was continually straining to catch references on and beyond the edge of my awareness.

This of course was one of the book’s joys too. It opened a closed world and brought the reality of life there home to me. I came away with a huge admiration for the skill of both Florians and a fresh respect for what collaborative art can achieve.

Hmmn. I wonder if either of the brothers Morgan would be up for a joint venture…

The Baiut Alley Lads by Filip & Matei Florian, translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth (University of Plymouth Press, 2010)

South Korea: telling tales

‘A man needs to understand where he comes from in order to be truly human’

The question of what counts as national literature keeps cropping up in this project. As recommendations for books from different countries continue to flood in, I’m struck by the different interpretations people have.

For some of us it’s about whether a book is set in a particular country. Others think that books have to be by people who hold citizenship or were born and brought up in the nation. Still others say it’s down to whether the author, who may hold citizenship for several states, identifies him or herself as being ‘from’ that place. Meanwhile countries themselves are often very quick to claim great writers with very cosmopolitan backgrounds as their own.

As I’ve been researching the titles for the list, I’ve found myself leaning towards a definition of national literature that requires the writer to have a strong connection with the country in question. Frequently this will mean that he or she was born there, but it can also be the case that the writer has adopted a country or lived there for a large chunk of his or her life, as in the case of South Korean-born Austrian writer Anna Kim.

But what happens if you were born into a nationality that no longer exists?

Celebrated South Korean dissident writer Hwang Sok-Yong — himself born before Korea was divided after the second world war — explores the scars that such nation making and breaking leaves on individual and national psyches and the stories that we tell to explain them in his haunting 2002 novel The Guest.

Following an elderly American pastor, Yosop, who joins a government programme to visit the region in North Korea where he was born, the narrative explores the legacy of a 52-day massacre that saw around a quarter of the population of Hwanghae Province killed during the 1950 Korean War. The massacre has long been attributed to the US forces by the North Korean government, but Yosop’s memory of events is somewhat different. As he works his way around the initiative’s series of carefully stage-managed events and visits his remaining relatives inside the secretive communist state, he encounters a series of characters and ghosts who enable him to piece together a much more rounded and disturbing picture.

The book presents a refreshing contrast to the two-dimensional reports that make up the bulk of reporting on North Korea in the Western media. Less interested in attacking the regime than in illuminating the reasons for its development, Hwang presents a subtle and nuanced picture of the country, which he was jailed by the South Korean government for visiting illegally in 1989 — ‘It seems the communists, too, can be quite humane, eh?’ remarks one of Yosop’s companions in Pyongyang.

Nevertheless, the administration’s vice-like grip on the national narrative simmers beneath the novel, bubbling to the surface now and then — as in the scene where Yosop is forced to sit and listen to a series of hysterical survivors’ stories of US atrocities at a state museum, all the while knowing them to be false.

In fact, the role of memory and eye-witness accounts underpins the novel. Much of the narrative is stitched together from a series of somewhat surreal monologues delivered by the living and the dead.  At times, these can feel stilted and forced — not helped by the hefty chunks of exposition which the complex subject matter requires.

Nevertheless, the resolution depends on each of the beings having the chance to deliver his or her testimony; only once all the contrasting accounts have been heard and considered can Yosop’s ghosts be laid to rest.  The right to swap stories, however controversial, messy, provocative or contradictory, is essential to the way we understand and assimilate our origins, it seems, no matter where we’re from.

The Guest by Hwang Sok-Yong (translated from the Korean by Kyung-Ja Chun and Maya West). Publisher (Kindle edition): Seven Stories Press (2011)