Monday, May 05, 2014

`Was Subversion Ever Sweeter?'

Soon after arriving in North Korea in 1989, annus mirabilis in much of the rest of the world, Anthony Daniels (Theodore Dalrymple) met a Korean man outside the Grand People’s Study House (“a vast building that is half pagoda, half fascist mausoleum”) in Pyongyang. Furtively, the man asked if he spoke English.  When Daniels replied that he did, the Korean said he liked “to hear standard English spoken. It is a great pleasure for me.” He told Daniels he was a student of English at the Foreign Languages Institute, where he was also inoculated with the Korean strain of Marxism-Leninism. He says: 

“`My only happiness is to read English literature. When I read Shakespeare and Dickens I feel a joy that is so great I cannot express it.’” 

Daniels (in Utopias Elsewhere: Journeys in a Vanishing World, 1991) asks himself if this is a form of flattery, an elaborate act of Korean courtesy to a foreigner. But would anyone risk his life simply to be polite? The man quickly slips away before the ever-vigilant security police or informers report his act of sedition. Daniels wonders why Shakespeare and Dickens “meant so inexpressibly much to him,” and says he found the answer in the writings of Kim Jong Il, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from 1994 to 2011, who succeeded his father, Kim Il-sung, after the elder Kim’s death in 1994. He quotes a representatively unreadable passage – “The Leader put forward the idea of revolutionising, working-classising [sic] and intellectualising all members of society and thus transforming them into communist men,” and so on, ad nauseam. Then he asks, “Who would not turn with relief (too weak a word) from that to this,” and quotes a section of Richard II’s great defiant monologue in Act III, Scene 2: 

“For God’s sake let us sit up on the ground
And tell sad stories about the death of kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murthered – for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court, and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d, and kill with looks;
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus,
Comes at the last, and with a little pin
Bored through his castle wall, and farewell king!”

Daniels, who has chosen the passage carefully, asks a question impossible to imagine spoken aloud in the DPRK: “Was subversion ever sweeter?” Daniels moves on after Shakespeare: 

“As for Dickens, he was no doubt taught to demonstrate the horrors of capitalism, but lessons taught and lessons learnt are not necessarily the same. For the fact is that every character in Dickens, however ill-used or wicked, speaks at least with his own voice and in his own words, and therefore is more human than North Koreans are allowed or supposed to be.” 

How good we have it, being able to read Shakespeare, Dickens or Daniel Steel on a whim – a gift too easily taken for granted -- which is why I love stories of lives changed or sustained by books – Eric Hoffer's by Montaigne's essays, V.S. Pritchett’s uncle by The Anatomy of Melancholy. One wonders if Daniels’ Korean confidante is alive and still reading.

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