Here I found incredible extremes of wealth and poverty, hope and despair and humanity and (political) insanity...
Having now journeyed on to Korea, I find I am still in a land of paradoxes - hardly surprising as since the Korean War of the 1950s the land has been divided into the ultra-communist North and the democratic, western-leaning South.
In the North - courtesy of Adam Johnson's sweeping novel 'The Orphan Master's Boy' I encounter a modern-day nation still in the grip of a dictatorship that echoes the worst excesses of Maosim in China. Through the story of one individual - who's true name we never learn - we gain insights into this highly secretive nation and the constant tensions between its US-backed neighbour to the South.
However, this is a novel of humanity as well as politics - and the brutal de-humanising nature of the state; and the extremes to which personal liberty and values are tested by this - are chillingly reminiscent of the 'Big brother' regime depicted by George Orwell in his 1948 novel '1984'. Here, too, human relationships are discouraged and events and reality are only 'true' if depicted as so by the state. An extreme instance of this can be seen in the story of the state interrogator whose parents, who he shares a flat with, live in contant terror of being denounced by him - communicating to him only in parroted slogans praising the glorious North Korean nation and its 'Dear leader' - the ruler Kim Jong il.
The central 'Dear Leader' figure of Kim Jong il is both ludicrous and sinister in equal measures. At times almost childlike in his petulance and his paranoia at being shown up by his US enemies (for one US delegation he insists on building a reproduction of a Texas ranch on the airstrip where they land), yet also terrifying in his inhumanity and egoism (he imprisons an American female rower rescued by a North Korean fishing boat, for a year and forces her to transcribe his collected writings; yet believes there is a chance she will fall in love with him). The sickening depictions of the worse prisons - where food, medical assistance and any basic human provisions are denied, leave no room for even the harsh humour of caricature however.
Here then, is a novel that depicts a very real and contemporary modern-day regime that is all the more chilling for being laughably preposterous... a regime that places as much import on crushing the spirit and emotions of its subjects, as their physical beings.
I have just crossed the border of this benighted country and have arrived in Seoul, the South Korean capital, courtesy of 'Your Republic is Calling You', a novel which, whilst set in South Korea, also recalls the tense relationship between the two Koreas, as it follows a seemingly successful South Korean who has, in fact, been a 'sleeping' North Korean agent for over a decade and who is unexpectedly called back to his 'Republic,' facing him with a choice between his South Korean family and freedoms, and his sinister motherland.