This Is Paradise by Hyok Kang

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This Is Paradise by Hyok Kang

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Jill Murphy
Reviewed by Jill Murphy
Summary: A welcome reissue for Hyok Kang's memoir of life under Stalinism in North Korea. The translation suffers a little under the sheer number of languages it has passed through to get to English and some of the notes are a little irritating, but ultimately this is a shocking, but illuminating, testimony of a childhood in one of the world's most closed societies and sadly, closes with some sharp words about the way the more fortunate global citizens treat refugees.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: July 2007
Publisher: Abacus
ISBN: 978-0349118659

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North Korea is one of the world's most closed societies. Not a great deal gets in, and even less gets out. We know Amnesty International cite North Korea as a terrible abuser of human rights. Since its citizens are unable to leave the country, it's mainly from the testimonies of refugees and defectors that we glean our knowledge. This Is Paradise! is one such testimony. Before he was out of his teens, Hyok Kang had survived a famine in North Korea that took the life of millions, escaped to China - where he spent four years as an illegal immigrant under threat of forced repatriation - and finally made his way to South Korea in a forced flight through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. And This Is Paradise! is his story.

For the most part, it's absolutely horrific. Hyok Kang lived through the great famines in North Korea during the 1990s. Millions died - and Kang watched the size of his class at school dwindle and dwindle, until nobody bothered to go at all. People lied, cheated and stole. They even cannibalised. But through it all, the relentless personality cult continued. Kim Jong II, the Great Leader, was inviolate in the people's minds. In comparison with the rest of the world, North Korea really was a paradise. Despite the 13 year military service, despite the Stalinist cult of denunciation, despite the labour camps, and the food shortages, and the censorship and despite the public executions. It's only once in China that the truth even begins to dawn on this sensitive and artistic boy.

This Is Paradise! should be required reading for us all. It is on one level, a simple account of boyhood, told by a young man still close to childhood. But of course, on another, it's an insight into a regime usually closed to Western eyes. And it's brutal, shocking and powerful yes, but it's also enlightening and precious.

There are minor irritations with the book, though it seems graceless to pick holes. On occasion it reads rather turgidly, stilted and formal. This may be due to the sheer number of languages it's passed through - from Hyok Kang's native Korean into his adopted Chinese, from Chinese into French by the journalist interviewing him, Philippe Grangereau, and finally into English. It may, of course, also be Hyok Kang's naturally formal way of speaking. And it may be that a flat narration is the only way to express the shocking events. Grangereau also adds a note or two and these are occasionally rather inflammatory - it irritated me. I didn't need Grangereau's florid adjectives to alert me to the horrific story I was reading.

Graceless nit-picking aside, This Is Paradise! is an important book on so many levels. It is an insight into a world about which we have precious little information. It is the testimony of a boy living under a totalitarian regime. The very fact that he is testifying leaves us with a duty to read, to know, to pass on. And the closing pages in which Hyok Kang talks about the difficulties facing refugees, particularly those who have escaped conflict and abuse, are reminders to us all about the way in which human beings can suffer and continue to suffer and also - crucially - about the way in which we treat refugees in our own countries. It is not a way in which we can take pride, but it should be, shouldn't it?

My thanks to the good people at Little Brown for sending the book.

Anne Fine's courageous book for children about the Stalinist purges, The Road of Bones, is one no adult should feel ashamed to read.

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