What is North Korean literature, as read by North Koreans? One of the few English translations of a novel from Pyongyang — Friend...offers a beguiling introduction to the everyday, with none of the rockets and military parades that the words 'North Korea' often bring to mind ... In its candid examination of domestic conflict and female ambition, the book unsettles expectations of North Korean life. The women, Chae and Eun-ok, are so committed to their careers that they violate traditional wifely norms. Their husbands feel resentful but know they shouldn’t ... Friend is, at times, didactic and propagandistic, but for every unctuous sentence, there’s another that points to blemishes behind North Korea’s facade ... The translation, by the scholar Immanuel Kim, can feel stilted, but usefully so, connoting the formality of the North Korean vernacular.
Undoubtedly, Friend is a novel from North Korea. Aside from characters calling each other 'comrade,' there are moments of obvious propaganda intended to instruct and shape the way readers think, in this case, about marriage ... The surprise of Friend, however, is Paek’s psychological acuity. Despite the novel’s didactic moments, his characters are not pawns of ideology. Rather, as we dip into their minds, through the stories they tell Jeong Jin Wu as well as his observations, we see them as complex beings, desperately trying to understand how they arrived at where they are ... Friend is a novel about marriage but also the unknowability of others and the expectations they have of us, and Paek handles these themes with quiet gestures that are subtle but full of empathy ... an astute psychological exploration of marriage, the work that goes into such a partnership, and the many ways it could fail us.
Friend suggests that North Korea is, on its face, more egalitarian than the South, with men and women striving side by side for the betterment of the country. And yet there is still an expectation that women bear the traditional burdens of homemaking and child-rearing. Despite being dated, Friend offers a fascinating glimpse into the realities of North Korean life. It reminds us that the people of that country may face hardships, but they also experience the same domestic challenges that afflict humans everywhere.
Friend is not high-quality fiction, and the writing hardly very polished prose; it strongly resembles much of the socialist realist fiction familiar from the Soviet-bloc nations. It is, no doubt, primarily of interest as an example of specifically North Korean fiction—since any is almost impossible to find for those who don't read Korean—but is also of some interest simply literarily. Paek shows a decent touch in unfolding his story, and there are character-portraits here which have some real depth. If there is a great deal of black and white here, Paek also manages an impressive amount in surprisingly many shadings of grey. Workplaces—including factories, entertainment-halls, fields, courtroom—do figure prominently, but Paek's focus on individuals and family, and his willingness to acknowledge failings, make for a novel that manages to be engaging, and even quite moving, even beyond its context. Friend is an example of a book that is more 'interesting' than 'good'—but there's enough to it that is good, too, to make it worthwhile. It does offer a (limited) glimpse of aspects of life in North Korea (in the mid-1980s)—but its strengths are beyond that, in its depiction and handling of its characters and their flaws and struggles (particularly relationship-struggles).
Friend...has a cosy, nineteenth-century sensibility detailing the inner travails of a local judge who struggles over the ethical dilemmas of granting divorces in his jurisdiction. If, somehow, a reader were to emerge from a cave with no knowledge of the current world, they might read Friend and conclude that the people of this society are exceptionally lucky to live among such caring authority figures ... the tone is conspicuous not for the overt propaganda but for what is missing, which is critical context. This is North Korean fiction for North Koreans, not a defector novel or exposé for the West. Context is unnecessary for this captive audience. Reading between the lines, however, all is not as stable as it might appear ... Reading Friend is like sifting through a black box for clues into a sealed culture. What is surprising are the domestic details, which imply the similarity of marital problems, whether under a totalitarian government or a democracy. For the Western reader, however, this is a pinhole perspective that provides only a limited insight into North Korea.
Originally published in 1988, the novel was and apparently remains immensely popular. It is easy to see why: the characters are layered and human while Paek maintains enough dramatic tension to keep the pages turning ... Friend, in this able and very readable translation by Immanuel Kim, is a salutary antidote to the many tomes that purport to explain the DPRK. The North Korea of the novel is—like everywhere else—filled with real people who love, tease, marry, fight, look at the stars, dream, make mistakes and grow old ... Friend may not be a great novel, but it is by any measure a good one. And if literature is supposed to upend our view of the world, then it’s better than good.
Published in 1988, this novel, deftly translated and with an informative afterword by Kim...weaves themes of greed, corruption, and self-sacrifice into a subtle, restrained narrative that becomes nothing less than a paean to the family: society’s most valued unit, 'where the love of humanity dwells.' A rare glimpse into an insular world.