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.