It is hard to imagine, if you think about it, that life in North Korea is really as bleak as we hear. Come on, this is the developed world! Between those two screaming economies of China and South Korea! Korea, for chrissakes, that place is on fire culturally, economically, educationally, you name it. Surely there is some seepage over the border, it can't be THAT bad.
This is a famous image, a satellite view of the two Koreas, at night. The big dark patch is North Korea. You can find the picture all over the internets; this copy is from thestranger.com.
Then you read an Inspector O novel by James Church who purports to have been an American intelligence agent who has operated in North Korea, and you think, huh, maybe it really is as bad as all that. Especially in this, the third of the series, following A Corpse in the Koryo and Hidden Moon. Bamboo and Blood is set in the dead of winter, and the prevailing themes are cold - there is not much fuel to heat anything - and hunger - there is not much food to feed the starving populace. People disappear in this story, but not in a nefarious way, rather, they just quietly give up and wander away into the countryside to die. You have to read Church slowly, or you might miss the quiet despair that lies under the carefully shrouded plot. He's good writer, and his prose aims to convey this sense of uneasy ignorance that must permeate North Korean society.
Because really, what the hell is going on? Only O knows, apparently. Often in these stories, one is dropped into the middle of a conversation, or place, and have no idea how one got there or what is going on. I guess that is how life is in the shadowy security world of North Korea. One minute O is being threatened by some thug from Central in his Pyongyang office, the next he is sitting on the shores of Lake Geneva, having an ominous chat with the head of Swiss counterintelligence (whom we don't actually know is the head of Swiss counterintelligence, we find that out several pages later when he pops up again.) The plot also has a mysterious foreign visitor who may or may not be important, and a dead woman (there has to be someone dead), and bits of meaningful information are offered in conversation but without words. Here is an example of how it works in an O novel:
"'I don't want to be assigned there. I want to know what's going on.'
'Of course, you do. Every crummy sector cop in the capital needs to know what is happening in an isolated, out-of-bounds county on the east coast.' She snorted, which was never her best noise. 'Don't ask me. It's military, and they keep us out. That's all I know, and if I knew anything else, you'd be the last person in the world I would tell.' She was lying, very openly, which was the only way she could tell me what I wanted to know. Amazing! As angry as she seemed to be after all of these years, she was willing to help."
How does O know she is lying? How do we? I don't know, I just have to take his word for it. There is a lot left unsaid in an O novel.
After a while this inscrutableness (?) gets kind of exhausting. Don't ask me to tell you what happened in the earlier books in the series, since I really can't remember - maybe I am not supposed to! No one ever seems to know what is going on in these novels, at least, that's what they want you to think, unless they are a high up from another Ministry or the Party or Central, in which case they know about something that they think is really important. And it may or it may not be important to our "plot" but it will certainly have something to do with our reluctant police officer, O. Still, Church offers a refreshing, if not particularly reassuring change of pace from my usual European-based crime fare.
I should note that I am reading Bamboo and Blood at the same time that I am reading Graham Greene's Travels With My Aunt. It is a pretty bizarre juxtaposition, and I have a lot to say about the latter but that's for another time.