A Corpse in the Koryo by James Church
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Inspector O, the protagonist of James Church's "A Corpse in the Koryo" works for the North Korean Ministry of People's Security. We meet him as he is unable to take a picture of a suspect car because of dead batteries in his camera (batteries are almost impossible to get in North Korea, like almost any other consumer item). Then he is sent on a mission from Pyongyang, through Kanggye, to Manpo, and all this time (covering over 120 pages) neither he nor the reader knows what is going on. Completely random, often absurd, things keep happening, sort of like in Scorsese's movie "After Hours", only here things are not that funny and we are aware that people can pay with their lives for a single misstep. Finally, back in Pyongyang, O gets a "normal" case to solve, the murder of a foreigner in a hotel. From that moment, until the end of the novel, most of the confusing things that initially made no sense whatsoever, get slowly untangled. More bizarrely, the narration is interspersed with O's conversation with Richie, an Irish agent. Again, the conversation does not make much sense, until the very end of the novel.
The author, who apparently has personal knowledge of life in the highly totalitarian North Korea, does a pretty good job presenting the grim and bleak realities. Even for me, born and raised in a country where for many years one could not get most basic items in stores, where there were enormous lines to buy food, where meat, sugar, and many other things were rationed, the North Korean situation is unimaginably bad. In fact, I regret that the author does not spend a bit more time to show glimpses into the lives of regular citizens of North Korea, rather than focusing on functionaries, who, after all, are quite privileged.
The portrayal of rivalries between the three agencies, the Ministry of People's Security, the Military Security, and the Investigations Department of the Central Committee is one of the best aspects of the novel. The author also seems to imply that, as powerful as they are, all these organizations depend on a mere whim of the top party people. Whether it is true or not, I do not know, but it adds another layer of complexity to already complicated structure of the plot.
Throughout the novel Mr. Church writes in a cold, impassive style, and allows emotions to show only a few times. I particularly like the phrase "the 1960s, when everyone was poor but still had hope." I love the fragment about young O's travel, with his grandfather, to Siberia to get wood for a furniture store they planned to open. On the other hand, I do not care for the device of intertwining the plot with conversation with Richie. To me it smacks of the author showing off his literary prowess. Funny, I usually love books that are out of the mainstream, ones that bend or mix the genres. "A Corpse in the Koryo" is quite out of the mainstream, yet I like the traditional parts in it more than the unusual ones. Maybe because they are written better?
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