Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Book review of Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia

Nothing to Envy described the lives of six ordinary North Koreans in Chongjin. Chongjin is an industrial coastal city in North Korea where lives of ordinary North Koreans were a far cry from the gleaming images of Pyongyang screened to the world. The non-fiction book takes on a story-telling twist by recounting startling details of the lives of these six North Koreans before they defected to South Korea. The book told the struggles they faced during the Arduous March which was a period when North Korea had a severe food shortage leading to a famine. Deaths caused by starvation in the population, people eating bark, grass and weed just to survive, and the gradual disappearance of public health care were also told through these stories. The book ended by sharing the routes through which these North Koreans defected to South Korea and how they adapted to life in South Korea. 

Nothing to Envy is definitely the best book I read this year, and I have to thank my wonderful friend and colleague for recommending it. In fact, it was so good that I stayed up reading the book through Christmas despite not sleeping the whole night/ early morning on Christmas eve. I was addicted to the compelling stories of a place hidden from the world. I wanted so much to know what goes on in that repressive regime beyond the propaganda materials circulated to the outside world. While I was intrigued by the historical events and factual recounts about the Kim regime, I was particularly interested in the day-to-day lives of its ordinary citizens. These people formed the middle and lower classes of North Korean society. These were the people with no family connections, no good songbun (classification based on blood lines), and essentially no money. They had to struggle to survive in a regime that perpetuated hunger, illness, and death. They had to work without getting paid in state-run corporations. The public food distribution system failed miserably in a society that was once promised 3 bowls of rice a day. Perhaps if a book was written about the lives of the elite in North Korea, I would be equally keen to get my hands on a copy just to read what encouraged the oppressor.

Reading this book made me realize the will to survive is the strongest motivation of all. Kindness is often eroded by this will, and those who survived often did so at the expense of somebody else. I cannot decide if this is a result of adverse circumstances like those in North Korea, or just human behavior in general. Or perhaps, it is human behavior in general but people could mask it successfully in better circumstances. We could be kind when we have enough to eat and when life is a breeze. In a way, kindness is a trait that can be better expressed in kinder circumstances. 

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