Would you risk death to read a book?
If you’re reading this kind of blog I expect most of you would call yourselves booklovers. No doubt a lot of you will be in book groups. What I’d ask you to do when you’re on your way to your next meeting, is to imagine there’s a possibility your group will be broken up mid-discussion, you will be ferried away to a labour camp (that’s decades of hard labour, by the way), along with your friends (and the next three generations of all your families), then executed. All for reading a book. A book! Or on the way back from your local bookshop you had to check over your shoulder to make sure no one from the Propaganda and Agitation Department was trailing you. I fish out dozens of books at a time and pile them on tables, and write recommends cards for them, and lavish my favourites on customers, and read, comfortably, in public places. I even write them. About whatever I want. With no reprisals, ever.
There’s something about the way in which North Korea (hereafter abbreviated NK) is almost hermetically sealed on the map that brings to mind the human head. Trapped between its ‘evil-capitalist’ sibling to the South and laissez-Communist China to the north (China and NK are like two BFFs that got “Totalitarian-Communism Rules” tattoos when they were teenagers, but NK is the only one who isn’t still embarrassed by it), NK might as well be that island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean Tom Hanks gets stuck on. After all, are each of us not stuck in our own unreachable little islands we might call our heads? Those places no one can ever see into. Swimming as close as we can to other people’s shores, craning our necks to see what might be going on there.
Perhaps this thought was what drove me to write a novel set in the most isolated – in terms of the political, idealistic, economic, and ontological – country in the world. If the writer’s most important tool is the imagination, then why not use it as the travel visa the North Korean government refused to grant me.
I had a wealth of nonfiction to read on the subject as escapees find publishers to tell their stories to (storytelling has never cared about borders). All I had to do was invent characters that felt tangible and possible in a place like NK.
I also had the testimony of NK escapees, tracked down through various back channels in Scotland’s Korean community, via the promise of favours and cash bribes. One, who I will call Escapee A, told me of her joy in reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. ‘April loves Frank so much. It had never occurred to me that you could love a person more than the Party,’ she told me. But I was confused. Escapee A had only basic English. How did she read and understand Revolutionary Road? I asked. ‘I read [her English made it rhyme with “steed” rather than “stead”] it in North Korea,’ she replied. I looked at the translator then back at Escapee A. ‘How?!’ I asked. ‘There [sic] plenty of foreign books there,’ she said. Then added, with a coquettish grin that would have charmed Cary Grant, ‘If you know where to look.’
The conversation that followed opened up an entire secret world in NK, of huddled groups reading by candlelight, book covers with hundreds of different fingerprints on them. But where no one is ever certain the person who just handed them the George Orwell isn’t trying to entrap them. In my day job as a bookseller at the Braehead store, I routinely hand over Orwells to eager young readers without a thought. And here was this fragile young woman explaining to me how she risked death each time she opened a page. I had always envisaged my main character as a government official with a secret penchant for banned literature. This secret was meant to be a solitary, and therefore lonely, experience. After talking to Escapee A I realised it should be solitary, yes. Lonely, no.
As a booklover I was tantalised by fleeting mentions of banned Western books in NK memoirs and travelogues, but these amounted to nothing more than a list of two or three books Northerners had read – almost always benign or apolitical. Surely somebody somewhere had got their hands on a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four? I asked Escapee A, B, and C. Only Escapee A answered: the problem was not only finding copies, but getting readers to admit to possessing it. Like the lover who’s desperate to admit to some startling and embarrassing bedroom-predilection, how does one go about raising such a spectre in a place like NK? One can’t just walk into a crowded room in NK and announce one’s hatred for the Party and the slave state it operates. Similarly, one cannot walk into a crowded room and drop down a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and announce, ‘What’s the deal? This was meant to be a nightmarish warning to the future, not a user manual!’
When it came to the writing itself, I thought whatever happens, I’m not going to mention it. I’m going to write a novel set in North Korea and not mention Nineteen Eighty-Four. But eventually I realised I had to. My main character – let’s not muck about here: my hero – Han simply had to become obsessed with this book. His fear and paranoia of whether Mae really had fallen in love with him or was trying to entrap him had to mirror Winston and Julia’s fear and paranoia. Would Han allow Orwell’s tragic ending to empower him or enslave him? And why must Han do all this? Because Orwell was right, then, as he is now: humans don’t require political systems to warn off loneliness; we need each other.
‘So how did you find these banned Western books?’ I asked Escapee A. The answer: an elaborate network of smugglers and market-stall owners who offer everything from batteries, to pornography, to Western sitcoms on USB sticks. That what North Koreans seemed to want utmost was to be entertained, to be taken out the misery and loneliness of their own heads, made me sad in a way that puts anvils on one’s eyelids and slumps the shoulders. Despite the fear of being set up by both illicit-booksellers and informing book group members, Escapee A’s reading habits grew to almost exclusively banned books. Pleasure now outweighed risk, and those banned books had turned on a light in Escapee A that couldn’t be shut off. There was something childlike, of the reading-by-torchlight-under-a-duvet-long-after-bedtime about this idea. Reading in NK was solitary. A relationship between only you and the book. And between you and the book was everyone and everything.
I used to call myself a booklover, but now, having spoken to people like Escapee A, B, and C, I can no longer self-apply or -promote myself to such a lofty title. After all, would I really risk death in order to read a book? I’m not sure. All I know now is that there are people who will. And do. And we cannot leave them alone any longer.
Andrew Drennan is a bookseller at Waterstones Braehead. In his spare time he interviews people who've escaped dictatorships and writes books based on what they tell him. Find out more about The Limits of the World by clicking the link below. Our shopfloor staff are pretty fantastic.