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Sunday, October 9, 2005

A totalitarian regime has a fearsome arsenal. It's got guns and tanks, soldiers and secret police, snitches and hidden prisons. but perhaps most fearsomely, it has control of the stories of its people. Through the state-run media and the mythology created around the revered leader, the regime tells its subjects how to think and talk about themselves and the world beyond the barbed wire. But inevitably there's a crack in the controlan escape across the border, a dead despot or someone who just refuses to censor himself -- and another version of the story gets told. But all renegade stories are not alike, as three new paperbacks ringingly demonstrate.

The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (Basic, $15.95) by Kang Chol-Hwan is the first memoir written by a former prisoner of one of North Korea's cruel prison camps. After President Bush read the book and met with Kang last June, the administration turned up the pressure on Kim Jong Il for human rights abuses. In plain language, Kang recounts his grandparents' disastrous decision -- driven by his grandmother's impassioned embrace of communism -- to immigrate to North Korea from Japan. For a while, the family lives a privileged life. But one day, Kang's grandfather disappears. Shortly thereafter, when Kang is only 9, the rest of the family is sent to Yodok, a brutal labor camp high in the mountains. For the next 10 years, he attends "school" -- a numbing combination of indoctrination and beatings -- in the mornings and performs heavy labor -- carrying logs down from the mountain, burying dead prisoners -- for the rest of the day. He fights malnutrition by eating salamanders and rats. His family is eventually released, but when Kang feels surveillance tighten, he slips across the border to China. Eventually, he ends up in Seoul, where he wrote this memoir -- named after the many exotic fish he kept as a child -- with the help of the French journalist Pierre Rigoulot.

The people featured in Stalin's Secret Pogrom: The Postwar Inquisition of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (Yale Univ., $25), edited by Joshua Rubenstein and Vladimir P. Naumov, fared much worse than Kang. During World War II, Stalin set up the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee to drum up Western support for the Soviet Union in its fight against Nazi Germany. The committee's members, several of them prominent Yiddish writers, spoke and wrote passionately about Jewish suffering and Jewish courage. But once the Nazis were vanquished, Stalin's anti-Semitism reasserted itself. In 1952, committee members were charged with treason and espionage, secretly tried and -- in what came to be known as the Night of the Murdered Poets -- executed. Stalin's Secret Pogrom, originally published in 2001, chronicles the trial through long-suppressed transcripts and reveals that after Stalin's death, the case was reopened by Soviet investigators who determined the charges were utterly false.

Even the bleakest of historical circumstances can foster humor and affection. In Han Shaogong's novel A Dictionary of Maqiao (Dial, $12), raucous life bubbles up during the dark days of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As an "Educated Youth" of 16, Han was sent to tiny, backward Maqiao in southern China to work as a peasant. There, he recorded key words from the local dialect in notebooks. A Dictionary of Maqiao tells the fictionalized story of that time through dictionary entries, a counterweight to Mao Zedong's penchant for issuing language manuals in an effort to standardize discourse in a country with many dialects. But Han's aim is hardly didactic. Take the definition of "low," for instance, which means any sort of sexual or deviant behavior. Maqiao, he writes, used to be particularly "low" -- until the arrival of Mr. He, the commune head. At one meeting, Mr. He brandishes a strange object: "What are these, you ask? X-ray glasses! With these, I can see every single low-down thing you get up to! If I catch someone, I'll punish 'em! Catch ten, punish ten! No mercy!" The X-ray glasses were really binoculars, but "many people said they didn't even dare touch their wives during that time." In the entry "The Qoqo Man," Wanyu, the local foul-mouthed singer, objects to wielding his own hoe in a peasant opera: "It makes me sweat," he complains. "Nine Pockets" recounts the difficulty that the authorities had defining the class status of a beggar in the nearby city of Changle who lived better than they did. Local and individual idiosyncrasies survive, Han seems to be saying, even under a vast, oppressive regime.

-- Rachel Hartigan Shea


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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