I chose James Church’s A Corpse in the Koryo (2006) for the Global Reading Challenge because it’s about North Korea, surely a mysterious society, and it’s written by a “former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia.” I hoped to get an insider’s view — realistic description of a country I’ll never visit — with an outsider’s perspective — explanation of aspects of the culture that a true insider wouldn’t realize needed explaining.
The book introduces a wonderful character, Inspector O, a state security officer whose grandfather was a revolutionary hero, a fact that figures prominently in how he’s treated in his career and in how he comports himself when his investigation sinks into a morass of corrupt politics, constant surveillance and hopeless infighting. He’s disrespectful (not wearing a pin honoring the Leader, for instance) and funny (especially in his ongoing quest for a cup of tea). And, according to the Washington Post, the author did a credible job of explaining North Korea as people (or at least security people) experience it. That part of the book I liked.
What I didn’t like was the style of writing in which I was supposed to be able to figure out what characters inferred from cryptic conversations, who was double-crossing whom, and how the various intelligence agencies interrelated. I suppose it really is that confusing to live in such a repressive, secretive and closed society, but there were several times in which I was just lost, in spite of the fact that Inspector O’s story is told as a narrative to an Irish intelligence agent who asks questions or makes comments (which you’d think would help). In fact, the author doesn’t even tell us how the inspector survives (but we know he did).
Counts toward the 2011 Global Reading Challenge