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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Paek Nam-nyong

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To purchase Friend

Title: Friend
Author: Paek Nam-nyong
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 224 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Friend - US
Friend - UK
Friend - Canada
Des amis - France
  • A Novel from North Korea
  • Korean title: 벗
  • Translated and with an Afterword by Immanuel Kim

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Our Assessment:

B : more 'interesting' than 'good', but worthwhile

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 6/5/2020 Esther Kim
The Japan Times . 5/9/2020 Nicolas Gattig
Libération . 10/10/2011 Arnaud Vaulerin
Le Monde . 15/9/2011 Philippe Pons
Le Monde diplomatique . 12/2011 Martine Bulard
The NY Rev. of Books . 3/12/2020 Sophie Pinkham
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/5/2020 E. Tammy Kim
Le Nouvel Observateur . 20/10/2011 Eric Aeschiman
TLS . 10/4/2020 Yoojin Grace Wuertz

  From the Reviews:
  • "Neither a searing indictment of the regime nor a propaganda screed, Friend illuminates the personal rather than the political, the daily trials of workplace conflicts and marital woes. In doing so, it sharpens our ability to see the fragility and messy humanity in lives too often obscured by state agendas." - Esther Kim, The Guardian

  • "An interesting cultural and historical artifact, Friend was written for North Koreans by one of the country's most celebrated novelists, which means for readers abroad to find value, it should be taken exactly for what it is. No use searching here for hidden subversion: This story passed the censors for a reason. (...) An expert at storytelling and craft, Paek shows the family as a small unit that helps preserve the moral fabric of society, which may be following the government ideology, but isn't a strictly North Korean concept. Readers may be surprised to see how much the characters and their preoccupations resemble novels from other countries, and throughout the book, the equality between genders is striking." - Nicolas Gattig, The Japan Times

  • "Loin d’être une œuvre de pure propagande, et encore moins un brûlot contre la dynastie communisto-confucéenne des Kim, ce livre ouvre, en 250 pages, une lucarne inédite sur l’un des Etats les plus verrouillés au monde. (...) Dans l’esprit de Baek Nam-ryong, ce n’est pas le régime, ni le grand leader qui sont néfastes, mais les mauvais conseillers, les profiteurs, les traîtres à la cause. Comme on peut s’en douter, l’auteur ne s’est pas fait que des amis avec ce roman fleur bleue et empreint d’une pudibonderie naïve, mais aussi très moraliste et offensif à l’encontre des cadres intermédiaires." - Arnaud Vaulerin, Libération

  • "Bien construit, mais non sans longueurs lorsque l'auteur se lance dans de soporifiques arguties idéologiques ou considérations sur l'origine de la vie sociale, Des amis dresse un tableau des déchirements intimes propres aux êtres enserrés dans les contraintes d'un système coercitif et en quête du bonheur laissé à leur portée." - Philippe Pons, Le Monde

  • "Par un jeu d’allers et retours fort bien maîtrisé, Baek Nam-ryong nous plonge dans les us et coutumes de la société nord-coréenne, ses méandres et ses tares. (...) Cette œuvre, littéraire avant d’être politique, doit beaucoup à Patrick Maurus, spécialiste de la culture coréenne, qui a dû faire preuve de souplesse et de ténacité pour avoir l’autorisation de la traduire." - Martine Bulard, Le Monde diplomatique

  • "Rather than agitprop, it was a sensitive account of the difficulties of marriage. The novel was a reminder that North Koreans, who were so often depicted abroad as vile caricatures, were just as human as everyone else. (...) For an outsider, one of the pleasures of reading Friend is the search for clues about everyday life in 1980s North Korea. (...) Reading Friend is like meeting a new person when you're blindfolded. You touch their face, tracing their features with your fingertips. You can't quite picture them, but you feel the warmth and texture of their skin. (...) Friend is clearly the product of a later, somewhat more relaxed period of official North Korean literature, displaying a level of ambiguity and flexibility that is perhaps comparable to that of post-Stalinist Soviet literature." - Sophie Pinkham, The New York Review of Books

  • "In its candid examination of domestic conflict and female ambition, the book unsettles expectations of North Korean life. (...) Friend is, at times, didactic and propagandistic, but for every unctuous sentence, there's another that points to blemishes behind North Korea's facade." - E. Tammy Kim, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Premier roman nord-coréen traduit en français, il parle de mariages moribonds, d'amour-propre qui tourne en détresse, d'égoïsme menaçant l'ordre social; mais aussi ce qui lui donne son parfum singulier, de la possible rédemption par la parole et l'écoute." - Eric Aeschiman, Le Nouvel Observateur

  • "(H)as a cosy, nineteenth-century sensibility detailing the inner travails of a local judge who struggles over the ethical dilemmas of granting divorces in his jurisdiction. (...) In Friend, the tone is conspicuous not for the overt propaganda but for what is missing, which is critical context. (...) Reading Friend is like sifting through a black box for clues into a sealed culture. What is surprising are the domestic details, which imply the similarity of marital problems, whether under a totalitarian government or a democracy. For the Western reader, however, this is a pinhole perspective that provides only a limited insight into North Korea." - Yoojin Grace Wuertz, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The central figure in Friend is Jeong Jin Wu, a judge at the Superior Court in an unnamed (North) Korean city; the story is set in 1984. The novel opens with a woman coming to his chambers to submit a petition for divorce; she is Chae Sun Hee, a former factory worker who is now a celebrity of sorts, a talented singer with a local troupe. Her husband is Lee Seok Chun, a lathe operator. They have been married for almost a decade, and they have a young son, Ho Nam.
       Most of Friend focuses on Jeong Jin Wu's handling of the case, in which he takes great personal interest -- repeatedly seeking out husband and wife, as well as speaking with their employers and others. He has a lot to consider -- as also, as he explains to one interested party:

The law protects the entity of the family, as it is a component of society. It's not an easy matter to destroy a piece of the nation. Divorce disconnects the relationship between a husband and wife. It's not a personal matter or a matter that can be decided by executive administrators like you. The family's fate as a unit is intimately connected with the greater family of said society. As a result, the court will carefully assess the divorce case.
       In interactions and conversations with the various interested parties he learns a great deal about the couple and the current state of their lives and relationship. They are not the only couple whose relationship he reflects on during this time: there is the example of his neighbors -- the wife a dedicated teacher, the husband an agreeable fellow but with a fondness for drink that he can't shake -- and there is also a divorce case he was involved in six years earlier that still weighs on him. Most significantly, there is his own marriage: Jeong Jin Wu has been married to Eun Ok for twenty years, but all this time she has continued her work at the vegetable research institute in her hometown, traveling there and spending a great deal of time there -- indeed, she is absent for much of the novel. Jeong Jin Wu is quite resentful: "Time had passed. Marriage had not been an enchanting reverie but a haunting reality". (That he had first met Eun Ok when presenting his senior thesis might not have been the best omen: already interested in the subject-matter, it was: 'A Legal Study on Divorce in Human History')
       Sun Hee and Seok Chun no longer get along at all. As Seok Chun explains to the judge:
I cannot bear to live with her anymore. You must divorce us. I really think that we're not on the same rhythm anymore.
       They seem to have moved apart because, while Sun Hee has found and blossomed in her calling -- she is an admired celebrity, "the lead mezzo-soprano in the province" -- she grew increasingly frustrated by what she saw as Seok Chun's lack of ambition. She doesn't understand why he doesn't enroll in Engineering College, or aspire to a more significant position. Seok Chun, on the other hand, insists:
I am perfectly satisfied as an operator without a diploma. I go to the factory and I turn the lathe. I like living a simple life.
       In fact, he is also an inveterate tinkerer, trying to build machines that would improve productivity -- though there seems little question that he would be better-equipped to make these a reality if he were properly trained (at an engineering school) -- and that a diploma would also make people take him and his inventions more seriously. Indeed, he enters a competition -- but while he is pleased with the minimal acclaim he gets there, Sun Hee yet again is disappointed that he doesn't show more ambition.
       Husband and wife are both flawed -- and stubborn. They both love their son -- and Sun Hee admits Seok Chun is a good father, and that the boy needs a father-figure in his life -- but their childish behavior towards each other at home has left the boy torn between them and obviously unhappy. (The parents behavior is almost outrageously childish; among the surprising things in this novel from a society that emphasizes the common good is how selfish the parents are, and how they are unable to keep up even minimal appearances, even just in front of the boy.) Jeong Jin Wu wades into all this and tries to navigate a solution, but it's an uphill battle.
       Along the way, Jeong Jin Wu is involved in several other cases -- a reminder of citizens' duties to each other and the greater good: he looks into the competition that Seok Chun participated in, recognizing that some higher-ups took some liberties (and most of the money ...) there, for example. The one other court cases which takes place at this time is one in which:
     The director of the City Electricity Distribution Company had designed an electric blanket for personal use and had been using it without permission from the government. This was considered a felony, as the entire country was trying to conserve energy.
       This is the one example of the sort of over-the-top 'local color' readers might have been hoping for in a North Korean novel; beyond that, the life on display throughout is almost surprisingly normal and familiar in its details. In this case, the fact that it's the director himself who is setting such a bad example is, of course, noteworthy -- but Paek repeatedly shows those who have attained higher positions to also be getting too big for their britches; indeed, arguably one of Sun Hee's problems is that her celebrity has gone to her head (though she too lives relatively humbly).
       Even Jeong Jin Wu is not without flaws. He is a good man, who tries hard (including in trying to source some casting sand for Seok Chun -- a noble but foolish effort), but he also thinks of himself more than the greater good in being disappointed in his marriage. Indeed, Paek manages to present a very human cast of characters. Occasionally, he goes for the too-simple and almost cartoonish -- notably with men in positions of some power -- but on the whole the characters' concerns and actions are universal, not society-specific. And while a concern for the common welfare is an underlying theme throughout, it is mostly framed as one for society at large, in more general terms, than strictly nationalistic or ideological; Party does figure here some, but for the most part only very peripherally -- though admittedly the judge does pull out that card in dressing down Sun Hee at one point:
He who diligently carry's out the Party's directives is the true bearer of noble consciousness and character.
       The one 'heroic' figure is the schoolteacher, orphaned in the Korean War ("killed by the Americans", of course) but finding in the orphanage -- the state as family -- everything she needed, the experience molding her into the system-ideal:
She learned that collectivity supersedes individual desire and ambition. The notion of "self," or "my future," or "my ambition" did not exist in her life.
       She is, of course, a much-loved and very successful teacher -- but Paek keeps her as the exception. Others, including Jeong Jin Wu, do try, but they can't live up to this high ideal; Paek's novel succeeds because he acknowledges human weakness and the difficulty in overcoming it.
       Friend is a quite well-structured fiction, following Jeong Jin Wu as he devotes himself to this case but also bringing in episodes from the past -- his, as well as that of the couple whose case he is considering -- and it makes for a fairly rich picture of these lives (and, to some extent, of day-to-day life in 1980s North Korea).
       The writing is often a bit crude:
He never expressed affection to her; he never opened the door to his heart. When it seemed as if he opened his heart, it was like an empty storage room with a cold breeze passing through.
       This is, of course, writing from a completely different paradigm -- a radically different society (and, not insignificantly, more than three decades old, as well -- this isn't contemporary fiction, either). Arguably, translator Immanuel Kim even goes too far in aligning much of the expression (and especially some of the dialogue between husband and wife) with present-day (American) English, lessening the 'foreignness' of the novel; it might have served the text better to completely embrace its (to-Western-ears) stiltedness.
       Friend is not high-quality fiction, and the writing hardly very polished prose; it strongly resembles much of the socialist realist fiction familiar from the Soviet-bloc nations. It is, no doubt, primarily of interest as an example of specifically North Korean fiction -- since any is almost impossible to find for those who don't read Korean -- but is also of some interest simply literarily. Paek shows a decent touch in unfolding his story, and there are character-portraits here which have some real depth. If there is a great deal of black and white here, Paek also manages an impressive amount in surprisingly many shadings of grey. Workplaces -- including factories, entertainment-halls, fields, courtroom -- do figure prominently, but Paek's focus on individuals and family, and his willingness to acknowledge failings, make for a novel that manages to be engaging, and even quite moving, even beyond its context.
       Friend is an example of a book that is more 'interesting' than 'good' -- but there's enough to it that is good, too, to make it worthwhile. It does offer a (limited) glimpse of aspects of life in North Korea (in the mid-1980s) -- but its strengths are beyond that, in its depiction and handling of its characters and their flaws and struggles (particularly relationship-struggles).

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 April 2020

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Friend: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       North Korean author Paek Nam-nyong (백남룡; Baek Nam-Ryong) was born in 1949.

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© 2020 the complete review

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