Sunday, September 26, 2010

Inspector O, Taoist Existential Hero in a Kafkesque Dystopian Noir Set in North Korea

With A Corpse in the Koryo, James Church, a pseudonymous "former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia," gives us not only an exciting detective story, but an unforgettable and compelling protagonist. Inspector O is an existential hero, a cynic whose is spared for his "anti-social" behaviour, such as sanding wood and forgetting to wear his pin of the Leader, only by the fact that his grandfather, from whom he inherited not only his love of woodworking but also his cynicism, was a leader in the anti-Japanese struggle and was known as the "Heartbeat of the Revolution."

The book's setting, North Korea in 2003, would be a dystopia if it weren't for real. Still technologically and ideologically stuck in the 1950s, it is perhaps the only possible backdrop for a contemporary noir. Where else could a detective chat with a flirtatious switchboard operator? Politics, which we might expect to be at the center of a story set in North Korea, only serve as a backdrop. Inspector O's Ministry of People's Security, for reasons he only learns at the end, finds itself in a mortal struggle with Military Security.

Things like home searches, being sent to coal mines for infractions, and midnight knocks at the door are depicted as normal parts of life, as they are for the citizens of that long-suffering country. Inspector O's boss uses the weather as a code for the political situation, "blue skies" meaning all hell is going to break loose. Political power, like the weather, cannot be altered.

Inspector O has the "heart of a poet." His musings about sunrises and mists and leaves changing color far outweigh what he says about the case he is investigating. His approach to investigation is Taoist, as he explains to a foreign spy:
    ... knowing too much can only lead to trouble. You know what you need to know. I'm not talking about instincts. No, my instincts are fine. Sometimes they move sideways, like an ox stumbling across a muddy field, I let them move however they wish. People think instincts should be sharp, they should fly like arrows. I don't believe that. I think instincts should wander and meander, like streams coming down the mountain. An arrow can miss a target. A stream always knows where it is going, eventually.
Later, in the same conversation, he says, "I once heard a Westerner say, 'What you see is what you get.' We laughed for days at the office about that." That gives a hint to the plot, whose ending includes a profoundly moving and humane twist.

I will be visiting What the Book? soon for the other novels in the Inspector O series:

Labels: , ,

Bookmark and Share


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Omnes Sancti et Sanctæ Coreæ, orate pro nobis.