Saturday, October 29, 2005

The Aquariums of Pyongyang

I picked up Kang Chol-hwan's The Aquariums of Pyongyang about two weeks ago and have been making my way through it. It's a much more compelling read than Michael Breen's The Koreans, but that can't be helped: Breen isn't a concentration camp survivor, and The Koreans is more of a survey than a personal narrative, though it occasionally dips into the autobiographical.

If any comparison is to be made, it's between Kang's Aquariums and Elie Wiesel's Night, a book I tend to reread every few years, and only with hesitation because it moves me to tears every time.

I'm only about a third of the way through Aquariums; I'll write more on it later, but want to make one comparative note here: in Night, Wiesel gives us very little preamble, focusing on his life in the concentration camp. Kang, by contrast, begins Korean-style, with a lengthy family history that explains why and how his grandparents (especially his grandmother) made the decision to leave their cushy life in Japan and return to the fatherland, family in tow, to support Kim Il-sung.

Reading books like Aquariums and Night is a bit like riding on a train that you know will be crashing soon. Because these are books, you can come back to those stories again and again. I'd like to think that I do this because such narratives teach a grim lesson about human nature. But there's also something dark about revisiting stories of tragedy and horror, something akin to the morbid curiosity that makes us rubberneck when we drive past a traffic accident.

More on this book, and Breen's book, later.


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