'Friend': The story behind the first state-sanctioned North Korean novel to be translated into English
Translator Immanuel Kim reveals the political climate that led to the original novel's publication in 1988, and how it examines the breakdown of a North Korean marriage
In 2009, Immanuel Kim began his research on North Korean literature, poring over every novel and short story he could find from the insular state.
His intent was to explore what North Korea had to offer, to glean some much-needed perspective of what living in the cordoned-off country was like.
But the more works he read, the less he could differentiate between them.
The protagonists of these stories all seemed exaggeratedly heroic and flawless, unburdened by any personal difficulties. Their sole role was to solve the problems of others. As far as character development was concerned, there was not much room for growth.
“Everything was about the leader, everything was about the party,” Kim, an associate professor of Korean literature at George Washington University, tells The National. “These stories all took place in factories, farms and in the army. After a while, I just got really bored with it. Is this it? I thought. Is this all North Korea had to offer?”
The story of 'Friend' by Paek Nam-nyong
It was then – at a library in South Korea where Kim was doing his research – that he came across the novel Friend.
“It had an interesting premise, the introduction was intriguing,” Kim says. It was immediately obvious to the academic, who was working at New York’s Binghamton University at the time, that the novel was exceptional. He eventually decided it needed a wider audience for the rare insights it gives into North Korean culture, and so he translated it, making Friend the first novel sanctioned by North Korea to be translated into English.
Written in 1988 by Paek Nam-nyong, Friend is a story of marital discord and divorce that cautiously challenges gender roles in a North Korean household. The novel begins with a celebrity singer visiting a judge at the courthouse to petition for a divorce from her husband, a lathe operator at a steel factory. The judge, wary of conceding a divorce without making sure the couple’s relationship isn’t salvageable, decides to investigate the case, interviewing the couple as well as their child. The novel then unravels its characters’ histories, revealing how their relationships deteriorated over time.
“The novel deals with family issues,” Kim, who was one of the authors featured at the 2021 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature earlier this month, says.
“For me it was really refreshing. I don’t know anything about the army. I don’t know anything about farms or factories. So I can’t really relate to North Korean literature, but family issues, I can. Not that I went through a divorce, but I understand, because this is a social problem that almost every culture goes through.”
The novel, which was published in English by Columbia University Press last year, utilises an omniscient narrator who flits between the lives of major and minor characters, so no one person is the focal point of the story. Kim says your perception of who the protagonist is will largely depend on where in the world you’re reading the novel from.
“If you read it according to the North Korean way, then the protagonist is the judge. He is the socialist hero who wants to improve society and does not want a married couple to divorce,” Kim says. “For me, the main characters that really drove the narrative were the women in the novel.”
A brief history of North Korean literature
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Kim says North Korean stories were abundant with strong female roles. In the early period of the establishment of the North Korea Bureau of the Communist Party, egalitarian views were promoted. The stories of the time, Kim says, encouraged socialist views and advocated equality between men and women.
However, this gender balance steadily disintegrated over the next few decades.
“North Korea went through a transformation where they wanted the woman to be very conservative and traditional,” Kim says. For the next two decades, North Korean literature became saturated with traditional women characters “who bowed their heads and did whatever the man said”.
They realised that other countries couldn’t relate much to their literature, so they started telling their writers to come up with something creative and new
In the 1980s, however, there was a short-lived but energetic revival of strong female characters. It was a unique moment in North Korean history, Kim says, where writers were given a bit of leeway and freedom to express their creativity and imagination. The reason for this? “It had a lot to do with international politics,” Kim explains. “South Korea was moving toward a democratic society from a dictatorship and there were a lot of student protests. There was this desire for liberation. Also, South Korea was going to host the 1988 Summer Olympics and North Korea really wanted to be part of that.”
This desire, Kim says, led North Korea to relax its hold over the country’s creative output, wanting to show to the world that they were every bit as capable in the arts and literature.
“They realised that other countries couldn’t relate much to their literature, so they started telling their writers to come up with something creative and new; something that was more relatable to other cultures around the world. This was also true for film.”
'You're not supposed to have ambiguity'
It was in this political climate that Nam-nyong penned the novel Friend. It was not the only story during that time that dealt with themes of marital intrigue and domestic friction. “After Friend, I found 10 or 20 novels that basically did the same thing,” Kim says. “For me, those novels were great, but didn’t have the same impact as Friend.”
Kim, who has published two books on North Korean film and literature, including Laughing North Koreans, suspects that Friend was popular among readers in the socialist state, as it was eventually adapted into a TV show in the mid 2000s.
“North Korea doesn’t have TV ratings or anything like that, so I don’t really know how well the show did. But a number of North Korean defectors in South Korea remember the show well. It had a different title. It was called Family, but nonetheless it had the same storyline.”
Much like the book, the show delved into the heart of marital problems and distinguished itself from other shows airing in North Korea, Kim says, which is why it may still be remembered today, almost two decades after it aired.
“What’s interesting is that the show never had any re-runs,” Kim says. “It was supposed to have 10 episodes, but they only aired nine. My hunch is it's because the ending of the novel is ambiguous. We don't know if the married couple is going to stay married or get divorced.
"In North Korea, you're not supposed to have ambiguity. So then the question is: if you allowed the ambiguity to exist in the novel, why wasn’t it permitted in the show? Again, we don’t really know the answer. This is all just speculation.”
Published: February 21, 2021 07:57 AM