There is no happy ending in Jia (Cleis Press), Hyejin Kim’s grim novel about North Korea, no final scene of freedom, no hint about what might happen in a future without the Great Leader; there isn’t even the usual scrap of hope that even the bleakest novels about survivors from totalitarian regimes frequently offer.
Based on stories Kim heard when working with North Korean refugees in China and told (mostly) in a first-person narrative from the point of view of the title character, a North Korean orphan who manages a comparatively privileged existence, Jia doesn’t pretend to have documentary verisimilitude. What it does is paint a composite portrait with small, intimate strokes. This is a fast, oddly flat but hypnotic read, full of tiny but searing details about life in what is commonly regarded as the world’s most secretive and most repressive regime. The almost mechanical tone of Kim’s language avoids both sentimentality and sensationalism – though it comes close to tabloidish when the narrative becomes uncomfortably omniscient in telling the stories of a couple of Jia’s friends. The story might have been better served by letting Jia herself tell them “as told to” her, which would also give the reader a bit of distance from some of the harrowing events.
What is most telling about Jia’s journey from North Korea to just inside China, to a frontier town where the black market thrives on the traffic and needs of refugees, is that its impetus doesn’t stem from either politics or economics. That is, she doesn’t flee because of ideological disagreement with Kim Jong II – in fact, she remains remarkably respectful throughout – nor because of pressing material needs, the way her friend Gun feels pressured to ease the terrible existence of his elderly and sick parents. Jia leaves because of shame, shame provoked, yes, by the political circumstances created by the peculiar policies implemented by Kim Jong II, but whose roots go much deeper, to a caste system that involves very non-Marxist, non-utopian notions of family and honor.
In Jia, Kim never steps outside the narrative to editorialize about Kim Jong II. For the first half of the book, we experience the hallmarks of North Korean society with deftness and grace. The great famines of the ’90s are referred to episodically, personally, as we watch Jia and her acquaintances struggle to find something to eat. But there’s no desperation here; Jia and company approach their fates with a level kind of acceptance. There’s a hardscrabble quality to survival in Kim’s Pyongyang, where all good things are given to the people as gifts by the Great Leader and all bad things are the ripple effects of outside events. The utter lack of irony in the way Kim has Jia tell these things is devastating. The horror is that Kim’s characters know no other life; they can envision nothing else.
When we first meet Jia, the daughter of a political prisoner, she’s a little girl living in the provinces, near the labor camp where her father is incarcerated. An attempt to reunite with her other set of grandparents, who are politically connected and might save her from a dead-end existence, fails miserably because of the shame attached to her due to her father’s status, and she’s left an orphan in Pyongyang. From then on, Jia is the recipient of an amazing string of protectors – the mistress at the orphanage, the director at a national dance school, the director of entertainment at a tourist hotel that allows her contact with outsiders, tips in hard currency, and a Berlitz-like knowledge of English. The last of these protectors, a Korean-Chinese businessman who saves her from a certain life in prostitution, strains credulity with his timing and generosity of spirit.
Throughout her adolescence and adult life, Jia hides her pedigree in order not to alienate her friends, and most importantly, her boyfriend, Seunggyu, an eager soldier for his nation, convinced of Kim Jong II’s vision of North Korea as the happiest, best place on earth. What Jia sees in him is a bit mysterious – he is anxious not so much for battle but to kill, and he’s mostly indifferent or insensitive to her needs. In fact, when she finally confesses her past to him, that he may know exactly who he’s asked to marry him, he betrays her, confronting her superior at the tourist hotel, essentially derailing Jia’s relatively comfortable existence. It is because of her fear of him, and the shame that she feels she’s saddled him with, that she embarks on her journey to China.
The trip across the border provides Kim with an opportunity to describe the underbelly of North Korea. There are moments when the adventure could be anyplace where desperation fuels a dream of a better life elsewhere – the U.S.-Mexican border, the Straits of Florida or Gibraltar, the line down the middle of Hispaniola or any crossing into the more prosperous emirates – but Kim makes it particular with hauntingly simple language: “We rose and walked behind the station. I saw a line of eight or nine people sitting down with their backs against the wall. Some leaned their heads on the person next to them, their eyes closed tight, while others gazed blankly in front of them, never blinking. Their skin was black, but it was different from the foreigners with black skin I’d seen at the hotel. Black spots covered their faces.”
It takes Jia a moment to grasp what she’s seeing, as it does us, and it’s precisely that pause which serves as the punch to our gut.
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