New Delhi: A tale exploring love, marriage and divorce — North Korean author Paek Nam-nyong’s Friend has become the “first state-sanctioned novel to be available to English readers”, according to The Guardian.
Published in 1988, Friend was an instant bestseller and is an important part of the North Korean literary canon. Thirty years later, the novel has been translated into English by Immanuel Kim, Associate Professor of Korean Literature and Culture Studies at George Washington University in US.
Kim had visited Paek in North Korea in 2015 before translating the novel.
Novels are extremely popular in North Korea but only those written by dissenters and defectors, who escaped the strict communist rule in the country, are available to the rest of the world. Paek Nam-nyong, however, falls under neither of those categories.
Born in October 1949, Paek was orphaned by the age of 11 and worked in a steel factory for a decade after finishing high school. While his manager in the city of Kanggye was very pleased with him, writing always called to him.
He majored in Korean Literature at Kim Il Sung University. While working at the Jagang Province Writers’ Union, he made a study of divorce couples because the local court that dealt with such matters was in the same building. Thus, he found the premise of the North Korean bestseller.
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A look at everyday life in North Korea
Friends offers a glimpse into the everyday lives of North Koreans — away from the political and military horrors that the world has come to associate the country with.
Delving into the protagonists’ married past, the novel brings to life the journey of how the couple fell in love and how their marriage deteriorated over the years.
The novel “chronicles the toll their acrimony takes on their son and their careers,” according to the Columbia University Press, which has published the English version of the novel.
Divorce was common in North Korea and Paek raises some pertinent existential questions in his novel about it. The novel deals with questions of public and private selves, unpredictability of existence and the toil of marriage. It illuminates an aspect of North Korea that remains undiscovered.
“‘Friend’ is, at times, didactic and propagandistic, but for every unctuous sentence, there’s another that points to blemishes behind North Korea’s facade,” writes contributor E. Tammy Kim in a review for The New York Times.
“The translation, by the scholar Immanuel Kim, can feel stilted, but usefully so, connoting the formality of the North Korean vernacular,” she adds.
According to Kim, who translated the novel in English, “In North Korea, if a novel is excellent, it’s circulated among the people. If a book is tattered, then you know it’s a bestseller.”
Besides Friend, Paek has authored Servicemen and After 60 Years and Life.
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