- Paperback: 326 pages
- Publisher: Mariner Books; 1 edition (September 28, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0151015457
- ASIN: B004H8GMBW
- Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 5.5 x 8.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 33 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,570,981 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Your Republic Is Calling You Paperback – Bargain Price, September 28, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Spanning a single day, this tense spy novel from Kim (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself), marred only by some stilted prose, is also a deeply compelling study of the self and varying themes of trust. Kim Ki-yong, a North Korean spy who's lived undercover for 21 years, has fully adapted to life in Seoul, South Korea, where he runs a successful foreign-film importing business, owns a home, and has a wife and teenage daughter, neither of whom is aware of his past or actual identity. As Ki-yong ponders returning to the austere and sterile militaristic regime of the North after receiving a coded message from his handler ("Liquidate everything and return immediately"), his wife, Ma-ri, struggles with infidelity and his daughter, Hyon-mi, maneuvers the tumultuous and tricky landscape of adolescence. Kim offers a riveting tale of espionage along with keen observations of human behavior.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
An e-mail changes Kim Ki-yong’s life. Seemingly a piece of spam in the Seoul resident’s in-box, it’s actually a coded communiqué from Pyongyang, ordering him to return to North Korea—immediately. Ki-yong isn’t a sleeper spy, exactly; it’s just that he hasn’t received any orders in 10 years. Now, at age 42, he has spent exactly half his life in South Korea. He lives comfortably, working as an importer of foreign films, with lockstep life in the north only a distant memory. Will he meet the minisub and go back? Or will he defy the command and stay? This isn’t really a spy story but a fascinating, personal portrait of life in a divided country and its toll on the citizens’ psyches. It’s not just Ki-yong’s story, either: his alienated wife, Ma-ri, is on her own intense journey of self-discovery, and, in complete ignorance of her parents’ worries, daughter Hyon-mi struggles with boys, school, and growing up. Kim’s thoughtful, effortless prose is a pleasure. His characters are completely relatable and their story is revelatory. A writer to watch—and, of course, read. --Keir Graff
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So why did I write all of that just now? Because I absolutely cannot understand for the life of me how a writer who is blessed to have this unique gift of language (and mind you, this was a translated book, so that should tell you just how gifted this author is!) can write something that is so utterly pointless? And what's worse than this, there are moments in this book that are nothing more than ramblings about trivial things which are completely and 100% unimportant to the outcome of the story, and even the characters themselves. For instance, one of the characters, who can't even be considered a main character really, is explained by the narrator of the book (the author, as this is in third person, present tense) to have stopped eating meat several years prior to when the story takes place. The author then proceeds to talk about the book this character had read which made this character stop eating meat, and, I am not even joking, for nearly three pages full of walls of text, the author discusses what was in this book, then another book, then adds commentary about it all, and for what purposes was this huge discussion about this character's decision to not eat meat? Absolutely no purpose at all. It literally has zero to do with anything that happens in the rest of the book from that point on.
This wouldn't be so bad if it were the only time this happened in the book, but as the book gets towards the middle and final parts of its narrative, this kind of rambling happens so many times that I literally stopped reading the book and skipped over these rambles. In the end, I made the right choice, because the ending was so quick and so brief and didn't resolve or explain anything in a satisfactory way that I would've wasted more time than I already had reading this book. Talk about a major let down. Oh, and really quick: if you start reading this book and take a wild jab at how you think it's going to end, you're guess will probably be 100% right. It's the most obvious way this story could end, and this wouldn't be a big deal really, except there are several storylines happening in this book, and none of them fully resolve into anything that justifies the 300 plus pages of reading you'll have to do to get to the end of this book.
There is one really solid story in this book that I had wished was the main focus of the story, and that was the main character's wife thinking about having a threesome with the young man she's cheating on her husband with. It's a great will she or won't that fully gets examined in a mature way for nearly the entire book before you find out what happens. It felt real, almost as though the author himself had experienced something like this, or knew somebody in his life that had thought about having a threesome behind her husband's back. This part of the narrative was the most fleshed out and thought out too, but even this had a very unsatisfying conclusion, mostly because the conclusion was swift and without any major consequence.
Much like the rest of the setup of this book.
I think this author is very talented, but seriously his talent's wasted on a story that somebody in his life should've told him to really stop and rethink the ending and maybe hire a new editor who knows how to cut out extraneous filler in a book that didn't need any. This book could've added another 50 pages at the end really fleshing out the consequences of everything that is set up at the beginning of the book, rather than giving us 50 pages of extra reading material that by the end of the book ultimately proves to be more distracting than helpful or insightful. And I say too bad, because this story could've been the story of the century with how beautifully the author chooses his words in the parts that aren't cluttered and devoid of purpose.
"Your Republic is Calling You", is a masterful piece of art. This compelling story about the sleeper spy from North Korea summoned back home after 21 year, grabs you and overwhelms you.
Two Koreas, so close, but so far apart. Same nation, but different worlds. Mr. Kim is a gifted writer, with an enormous potential. I cant wait for his next book.
The main lapse of the book is that it lacks depth; one problem with exposition heavy novels is that the novelist's role is to show, not tell, and this novel fails in this regard. The novel has honestly little of interest in regards to the interactions of its characters; none of them really come alive. Perhaps it has to do with the format, fitting in so much about a single day is extremely difficult, especially with such a sparse cast of characters, but the characters read more like allegories and the social phenomena and history are not explained. As a comparison, compare Kim Ki-yong to the protagonist of Chang Rae Lee's Native Speaker. Chang Rae Lee's Native Speaker, for its own failings, is very proficient at revealing the psychology and character of its protagonist, also a spy, albeit a private sector one, and both characters have similar personality traits-- they are quiet, thoughtful, but excessively passive. When Kim Ki-yong complains about his employee's lack of charisma, he's really speaking of himself, and perhaps it's an explication of a Korean archetype.
The sole redeeming trait of this novel is that it's exceedingly funny. Coming in to such heavy material, describing the various tragedies of recent Korean history, the life of a North Korean infiltrator in South Korea, various but shallow social critiques of the failure of Korean bourgeois life, you would expect this to be deadly serious, but there are many seriously funny bits, and I'm amazed that many reviewers have missed the comedy.
The cue-off should be the part describing the death of Ma-ri's (an ironic name given that this Mary is a whore) father. It begins by describing the man's insane obsession with a Korean-Japanese sumo wrestler, and how he spent much of his life spouting the last words of the sumo wrestler, that one should live one's life as a song, as his personal philosophy. On his deathbed, when his family has gathered for his last words, when he opens his mouth to speak, it's insinuated that his eldest son speaks for him to give him a dignified, but appropriate last sentence, albeit funny in its own way: "Be wary of taxes". To treat a man's death in this way really shows the essence of the novel; it's what should be an obviously anomalous treatment of a tragic subject. This is not the most comic sequence of the book, although the humor in this novel is both subtle and deadpan. In fact, this is the implicit philosophy of the novel. Life is short, tragic, and full of suffering, but one should look at it with humor. Once you can see its humorous aspects, the weight of existence fades away and happiness becomes possible.
In one way, I wonder if this is a humorous response to Chang Rae Lee's Native Speaker. Chang Rae Lee's novel, while cohesively a more masterly text, is redeemed by the appearance of beauty, and fleeting scenes of marvelously bright prose. However, the Chang Rae Lee narrator is always serious and can never see his life as comedy. Kim Young-ha, instead of beautiful prose, responds with humor, so all the sordid and tragic aspects are diluted with a mild sweetness that never obscures its own tragedy. And I believe this is actually more Korean than Chang Rae Lee; from what I've read about Korean aesthetics and Korean art, it is characterized by a sincere lack of artifice and mild humor, something Chang Rae Lee's Americanized novels fail to get.
All in all, if you have $12 for the Kindle edition and 5 hours of your time, go and buy the book and while your time away in laughter. If not, it's worth a call and detour to your local public library. If Korean literature is or will become characterized by this solemn humor, I'll eagerly await future translations of Korean works.
**** Addendum, with spoilers ahead ****
Tvtropes calls this fridge brilliance. After sleeping on the book for some time, my impressions on this book have been improved. At times, the prose, the references, the symbolism seem farcically pretentious, but after a while the initial shock dissipates. The characters, while not as fleshed out as they would have been in a longer work, have their moments, such as in the climatic reveal where Ki-yong confesses to Mari that he's a North Korean spy, a uproarious domestic comedy and quite revealing of the real priorities of the two characters.
I also had my issues with the ending at the start, but after thinking it through it seems quite appropriate. My initial impression of the ending's meaning was that it seemed tacked on as though this were a Chinese novel hacked to get past the censors, but in fact it's an amusing play on censor-running in a country where evading censors is no longer necessary. For the South Koreans to capture Ki-Yong, it may appear as though its real meaning was that "the authorities always win", but in fact it completes Ki-Yong's destruction and abnegation. After his spat with Mari, he's lost his identity as a family man, but he still has his self as a North Korean spy. Here, the South Korean counter-espionage team not only detains him, but also reveals that he's been a roach trap for North Korean spies the entire time. He never really had a choice in the matter to begin with, and the novel ends with Ki-Yong not only betraying his old comrades but being forced back into his old life, which he had systematically destroyed over the past day, to rebuild under coercion.
In this ending, there may appear to exist plotholes. His sole employee at the import dealership was a spy to begin with, and it's unlikely he can go back to his line of civilian work. He's burnt his relationship with Ma-ri, so it seems difficult for him to resolve the relationship problems in his marriage, especially with his new political status. He's revealed himself to Soji, so he can't really come into contact with her anymore, explanations are not merely awkward, but potentially criminal. What has happened is that Ki-yong has been forced back into a destiny of pretense, without any of the relationships he's built up over the years, or even the lingering Communist convictions of his identity as a North Korean spy. These plotholes are supposed to be there, the plotholes actually indicate that the ending is not a happy one. If you read this as a social commentary, the real meaning of this ending is that at the end of the day, your social system controls everything, and the choices aren't really yours to make. However, Ki-yong is left with his daughter as a sole condolence, so the ending isn't entirely bitter, being somewhat reminiscent of Chinese author Lu Xun's Diary of a Madman, where the last words of the madman, concluding that his civilization is cannibalistic, is to "save the children" from continuing their cannibalism.