Thursday, October 24, 2013

God is Kim Jung Il

God is Kim Jung Il

I’ve spent the better part of this week engrossed in Pulitzer Prize winning audiobook, “the Orphan Master’s Son,” which chronicles the life of character Jun Do and his various exploits - kidnapping Japanese citizens, gathering radio intelligence, being bitten by sharks - as a citizen in the unfathomable clutches of the North Korean government.

The story is extraordinary - almost unfathomably so. As a young child, Jun Do’s mother is forcibly transported to the capital - the fate of all women and girls of marginal beauty. Wives are, for the most part, assigned to their husbands as tokens of reward. Doctors are functionally nonexistent, and starvation and disease are pervasive. Electricity is spotty and cuts out at nine pm. Curfew is mandatory. Anti government sentiments or attempts at escape are punishable by forced labour (and likely death) for both the perpetrator and the entirety of their family as well as any neighbours or coworkers suspected to be complacent. Government control is total and beyond the petty incursions of logic or consistency.

Earlier this week, about half way through the book and in desperate need of reassurance, I turned to a friend and expressed my doubts: perhaps the author, American Adam Johnson, had crafted a grotesque fantasy built upon our suspicions and lack of knowledge of the reclusive nation (the most isolated in the world)? Perhaps the government described were naught but the paranoid imagining of someone who’d consumed too much George Orwell. I knew only of the country’s frequent military aggressions, alongside vaguely recalled news stories of drought and poverty and difficulties with accepting aid from foreign nations. These facts did not paint an especially tender image of a land of freedom and plenty, but they certainly did not lead me to predict...this. Surely things can’t be that bad in North Korea.

With these famous last words I finished by book, a work of fiction, and set about gathering some facts.

The facts were far more disturbing than anything imagined by Orwell or Johnson. In a New York Times’ review of the book (which criticized the author’s light treatment of such a serious subject matter) the reviewer mentions, without qualification, that North Korea is the worst place on Earth. While I’m interesting in seeing the data backing up that statement (for no reason other than morbid curiousity: what other locations vied for the title? Were only entire nations considered, or also isolated geographic entities - like ice flows or volcanoes? What criteria held the most weight? In what form would the data be presented - perhaps a circle graph?), I’m inclined to agree with him. 

North Korea is batshit crazy.

In attempting to create a more cogent picture of the “Most Democratic Nation in the World,” ruled by a hereditary line of all-powerful dictators, I’m finding the task impossible - because it’s a world of inherent contradictions and terrifying (unreality?).

Rare foreign visitors, allowed on short and escorted trips to pre-approved destinations, appear stunned at both the abject poverty of the nation’s people and their unfailing devotion to the Dear Leader, whose portrait is hung in every room. A woman has surgery by a visiting foreign doctor, restoring her vision, and upon removal of her bandages she goes straight to the room’s portrait and loudly proclaims her humble thanks to the benevolence of the Great Leader, vowing to work all the harder in the salt mines. She cries with the heartfelt sincerity of her gratitude while the other occupants of the room erupt in fervent applause.

All interviews with North Korean citizens go something like this:

Question: [Absolutely anything]

Answer: By the grace and mercy of our Great Leader, whose loving benevolence ensures the prosperity of our great nation, so that I may better serve him.

Typically, the interview ends soon afterwards.

The sheer intensity of this reverence is suspicious - in no small part because it’s common knowledge that any minor misstep or perceived slight is likely to lead to death, torture, or a lifetime of hard labour in an internment camp, both for the guilty party and anyone they love. Some prison camps are strictly for the internment of family members of dissidents and defectors.

And yet, disturbingly, these spontaneous proclamations seem...sincere.

And then I thought of God - that mysterious all-loving, all-knowing magic man who comforts those who've passed on and allows all good things to happen to those who praise Him. Suddenly the fervent exclamations of the North Koreans started to sound a bit more familiar.

Good Christians know that all good things in life are by the grace of God. Grammy awards and football games are won because God wills it to be so. Wars are won in His name. And yet we are taught to fear Him and His mighty jealousy - because He’s also kind of a Jerk and very happy to send you to fire and brimstone for all of eternity because you made the mistake of being born in the wrong country or being attracted to the wrong sex or, worst of all, questioning the justice of His practices.

So, I have to give North Korea a little credit, because at least Kim Jung Il exists...

Monday, August 12, 2013

I Love You

Her mother regularly told her daughter she loved her. The words were not warm and brimming with sentiment, but rather cold and austere, as much of her mother’s communication tended to be. In the phrase, too, lay a hint of anger and defensiveness, as in I’m not like those crappy parents who never tell their children they are loved, or try to accuse me now that your childhood is bad when I have said, on record, that I love you, every day for the last ten years.

Her father, too, emphatically expressed his love for his children at the end of every conversation, stated both as a fact and a departing signature, substituting for ‘be good to your mother,’ which was awkward, or ‘see ya later, alligator,’ which the children had quickly outgrown. She understood her fathers actions better because, as an irregular parental figure, he may be days or weeks out of their lives, and she felt he sincerely wanted to leave his children with a concrete assurance of his feelings for them, lest they doubt it in his absence.

The frequency of “I love you”s was so pronounced in both parents that she eventually grew to suspect that they had conversed on the subject at least once, during that unknowable time period when they had been a couple and assumedly had conversations. Like most parenting decisions made at the time, she suspected it was a reaction to something that had occurred in one or both of their childhoods, or, at the very least, in the childhood of someone they both knew or a fictional character whose childhood was used as a parable in the church they attended, whereby both mother and father to-be learned the terrible damage that could be wrought by not telling your child, often enough, that they were loved.

They had decided or been taught that the best way to convey their unconditional love was to repeat the phrase “I love you,” eagerly, regularly, at socially acceptable intervals, such as when the child is departing for school, or at the end of a phone conversation, and she suspected that the habit of this action had eventually overshadowed the underlying intention of the act, leaving her mother’s disregard for conveying love or ensuring the feeling of love in her children, and left only the oft repeated phrase.

Like most of the values that her parents fervently persisted in, she suspected this stemmed from a cultural fad that had existed in the mid to late seventies, or general movement of social consciousness which had developed at that time and since evolved considerably so as to be unrecognizable in its present form. Like being a born-again Christian**, and the Muppet Show.

As in all things parental, the line between love, resentment, and socially-accepted obligation was blurry at best.

The mother cares for her children because she loves them. The mother cares for her children because she’s legally obligated to do so and would be judged by others if she does not. The mother cares for her children because she expects said children to acknowledge her care as a sacrifice made due to love and to never imply that such sacrifice is due to legal obligation or societal pressure, lest they be screamed at in high pitched tones, which they are to understand stems from an intense abundance of love, but also hurt and anger and dislike, because all such emotions freely coexist, as in “I love you, but I don’t like you,” a phrase which was frequently heard in her early childhood.

The daughter views “like” as the lesser version of “love,” thus negating her mothers views on the subject entirely. The daughter grows defensive of this connectedness, holding it central to her world view, becoming incensed and eventually tearful if anyone argues that the terms are not directly linked. She takes care to assure her loved ones, specifically her two dogs and sister, and her mother to a much lesser degree, that she both likes them and loves them, and she does so at intervals which are not predetermined and thus vary in frequency but still often include the ends of phone calls and times of departure.

**Christian, in this case, meaning ‘evangelical,’ just like Jimmy Carter’s sister who, if I remember it correctly, was reported as going around and performing freelance exorcisms. The fact that members of this evangelical  branch of protestantism refer to themselves just “Christians,” as though there were only one real kind, is usually enough to characterize them, at least as far as I was concerned.

David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King
posthumously published audiobook* version
(*so the spelling and/or punctuation is my own and therefore may be wonky)