"Your Republic Is Calling You," by Korean novelist Young-ha Kim
YOUR REPUBLIC IS CALLING YOU
By Young-ha Kim
Translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim
Mariner. 326 pp. Paperback, $14.95
It's never a good sign when I have to flip to the back cover of a novel I've just finished to find out what it was supposed to be about. In the case of "Your Republic Is Calling You," a new novel by the celebrated Korean writer Young-ha Kim, I don't think the book jacket writer had a clue what was going on either.
If, however, you enjoy the cryptic literary acrobatics of Paul Auster, perhaps you won't be as annoyed by this novel as I was. That's because "Your Republic Is Calling You" is a politically inflected variation on the kind of suspense tales that Auster -- and his absurdist forefathers like G.K. Chesterton ("The Man Who Was Thursday") and Graham Greene ("The Third Man") -- are best known for: meditations on the befuddlement that is human identity, presented in the guise of highly self-conscious mysteries. One either likes this sort of thing or one doesn't. But even taken on its own existentialist terms, "Your Republic Is Calling You" is a knotty read.
Here's the premise: Ki-yong works as a foreign film importer in South Korea. He's married (unhappily) to Ma-ri, a saleswoman at a Volkswagen dealership, and is the father of a sullen teenage daughter. For the past 21 years, however, Ki-yong has been harboring a secret: He's a North Korean sleeper agent who, as a teenager, was expertly trained in the accents and customs of the South at a fake village straight out of that old 1960s TV excursion into Sartrean discourse, "Secret Agent."
One morning, Ki-yong goes into his office, turns on his computer and finds this haiku by the 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Basho in his in-box:
The jars of octopus --
under the summer moon
Stunned, Ki-yong recalls that the haiku signals "Order 4": "Liquidate everything and return immediately. This order will not be revoked." Ki-yong reflects that "Basho's haiku, like the order itself, hints at the end of dreams."
Kim's novel follows Ki-yong throughout the rest of that day, as he wrestles with the dilemma of what to do. Should he obey the order and return to whatever awaits him in Pyongyang? (Death? A medal in gratitude for long service? Servitude in that Potemkin village, where he'll be forced to train other agents?) Or should he ignore it and risk death or exposure to the South Korean intelligence forces?
Meanwhile, Ki-yong's wife and daughter are in the dark about his long-hidden identity and his present torments and so are free to go about their normal activities. In the daughter's case, this means slipping away after school to meet a disturbed boy at his family's tiny apartment. Ma-ri's adventures are a little friskier: To please her callous younger lover, she sneaks off for a soul-deadening ménage à trois at a nearby hot-sheets hotel. Both of these curveball subplots about anomie emphasize Kim's political point that the prosperous South Koreans are no more fulfilled than their miserable counterparts in the Communist north.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Apart from its occasionally interesting observations on contemporary South Korean society, "Your Republic Is Calling You" is too aloof to be compelling. Something has to pull readers into a story like this. If it's not the characters (who are little more than sketches) or the plot or the atmosphere (which are not paranoid enough), then the overall effect is chill and derivative -- like remixed Korean Kafka. I'm sure this exasperating novel will attract critical fans who will see all sorts of political and metaphysical significance in it, but my advice to mystery readers regarding "Your Republic Is Calling You" is to set your ring tone to mute.
Corrigan, who is the book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches literature at Georgetown University.