Since Powell's is one of my favorite bookstores in the world, and since I'm a guest blogger, I thought I'd relay my experience at one of the worst bookstores in the world. In 2007, I traveled to North Korea to research my novel The Orphan Master's Son. I visited four cities over six days, and it's hard to describe the surrealism of the DPRK: there are no planes in the sky, no advertisements, no cars on the boulevards, no stores, no bicycles, no pets, no magazines, no... it goes on forever. There was one haircut that most of the men sported, a "speed-battle" haircut, the number four, and they wore the same blue shoes and black half-sleeve vinalon sport coats. The women all wore the same eerily dark shade of lipstick.
Pyongyang opens up for two weeks a year — once in the spring and once in the fall for the Arirang (or mass) games in the Rungrado May Day Stadium, which is situated on Rungra Island in the Taedong River that bisects Pyongyang. It's the largest stadium on earth. During these two weeks, North Korea is on its best behavior — the city is spotlessly cleaned, and the power is left on all night. Supposedly, the one monument that glows all night, regardless of the time of year, is the Tower of Juche Idea, which is found on the south shore of the Taedong River. The tower is 560 feet tall, and from it the most commanding view of Pyongyang can be had. From the top, with the glowing red flame overhead, every rusting apartment block can be seen until finally the woodsmoke obscures the horizon. Juche is a national notion of self-reliance that both suggests shrugging the yoke of imperialism and making do on your own when the Kim regime stops providing food rations.
When exiting the Tower of Juche Idea, you must, of course, leave through the gift shop, which turned out to be one of the few bookstores in Pyongyang. You must remember that all artists are required to write, paint, sing, or sculpt propaganda for the regime. There is no true artistic expression to be had, so that their novels, instead of exploring the human condition, simply praise the Kim Leadership. The result is that a true literary novel (at least that we know of) hasn't been written in North Korea since the end of WWII, and citizens of that nation haven't read a real book in three generations. But here in the gift shop of the Tower of Juche Idea, I discovered many propaganda novels written in English. The one that caught my eye was I Am a Korean by Ryoktosan, or "Rikidozan."
In Pyongyang, I'd came across several bottles of rice wine bottled in commemoration of the North Korean wrestler Ryok Do San Sul, known in Japan as Rikidozan. He was born in North Korea's Hamgyong Province. After the war, Ryokdosan moved to Tokyo, where he became a mentor to Japanese pro wrestlers Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba. In real life, Ryoktosan ran afoul of the Tokyo underworld after his wrestling career was over, and in a bar restroom was murdered by a Yakuza enforcer who urinated on the knife before stabbing him.
But in the propaganda memoir "I am a Korean," Ryoktosan is revered as a martyr who was murdered by the Japanese government in retaliation for beating Masahiko Kimura, inventor of the famed armlock that bears his name. I asked two people in Pyongyang, and both were emphatic about the way the Japanese government murdered Ryoktosan out of jealousy. Both seemed to take the North Korean version of Ryoktosan's fate as gospel, and, in the end, I found myself wishing the propaganda storyline were true, too.
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Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His previous work includes a short-story collection, Emporium, and the novel Parasites Like Us. The Orphan Master's Son is his second novel.
Books mentioned in this post
Adam Johnson is the author of The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea