A Kafkaesque Spy Thriller Straddles Two Koreas

Your Republic Is Calling You
Your Republic is Calling You
By Young-ha Kim
Paperback, 336 pages
Mariner Books
List Price: $14.95

Read An Excerpt

When I was growing up, there was no more famous symbol of the Cold War than the Berlin Wall. But in fact, the Wall could never really compare to the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea. Still going strong after 57 years, it has created a parallel reality worthy of Philip K. Dick.

By now, most people know that North Korea may the strangest country on Earth — an Orwellian dystopia complete with starving citizens, nuclear weapons, a goofball dictator, and public displays seemingly choreographed by Busby Berkeley. But in the West, it's less well-known that South Korea is a booming modern democracy with an infrastructure more advanced than our own. It's also an outward-looking cultural player. Even as South Korea's TV soaps dominate Asia, it also boasts one of the world's most exciting movie cultures — it had five films at Cannes last May.

From the outside, the split between the Koreas is usually seen in terms of geopolitical menace. But from the inside, it's lived as a bizarre form of identity crisis. This is precisely the subject of Your Republic Is Calling You, a smart new literary thriller by Young-ha Kim, who at 41 is one of South Korea's best and most worldly writers, with a knack for Kafkaesque surrealism and irony.

Taking place over a single day, the novel tells the story of Ki-yong, who seems to be an ordinary, middle-class guy in his 40s. He imports foreign films and has an attractive wife, Ma-ri, who sells VWs, and a brainy daughter who is just discovering boys. But Ki-yong has a secret: He's a North Korean spy who has been sleeping with the enemy for the past two decades. And on this day, he gets a chilling message from his masters back in Pyongyang: He has 24 hours to liquidate everything and return home.  Terrified, Ki-yong doesn't know whether he's been found out by the South Korean authorities or whether the North is calling him back to liquidate him.

Unsure whether to go back, Ki-yong spends the day wandering around Seoul and remembering his time there, basking in what he calls "premature nostalgia" for the city he may be leaving. He doesn't have a clue that Ma-ri also has secrets — she's trying to decide whether to partake in a threesome with her young lover.

Fueled by paranoia, Your Republic Is Calling You pulls you along like a thriller, yet Kim is after more than suspense. A keenly observant writer, he turns his story into an amusingly bleak X-ray of present-day South Korea that's as interested in Bart Simpson as in Kim Jong Il. Along the way, we meet a huge array of sharply drawn social types — comedians and tax cheats, porn addicts and schoolteachers, spoiled college kids and former student radicals like Ma-ri who find their generational dreams of national reunification curdling into desperate adulteries. She wonders how it all went wrong.

Young-ha Kim i i

Young-ha Kim burst onto the South Korean literature scene with the novel I Have the Right to Destroy Myself. Young Kyun Lim hide caption

itoggle caption Young Kyun Lim
Young-ha Kim

Young-ha Kim burst onto the South Korean literature scene with the novel I Have the Right to Destroy Myself.

Young Kyun Lim

Nobody is more lost than Ki-yong, whom we see living in three different countries. He spends his first 21 years in North Korea being force-fed ideology, eventually training to be a spy in a crazy underground simulacrum of Seoul. The second country is '80s South Korea, starting to prosper but not yet democratic — it was exploding with protests like the American '60s. The third country is today's go-go South Korea, devoured by a run-amok selfishness and materialism that Ki-yong both enjoys and holds in contempt. Adapting to these very different realities, Ki-yong feels less like a spy than a cyborg, one programmed to adopt whichever self the society of the moment demands.

He feels trapped, and so do those around him. Although South Korea is wealthier and freer than ever before, the novel suggests that the country's apparent freedom is far from liberating. Like the Berglund family in Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, its characters wind up buffeted by confusion and regret, boundless yearning and fierce isolation.

It would spoil things to say what Ki-yong winds up doing, but suffice it to say that, by the end, he and Ma-ri have gained a cruel wisdom. They discover that the choices they think they're making freely aren't really free after all. In fact, they are hostage to forces — personal, historical and existential — that they can't control and don't fully understand. They're adrift. Children of a fractured republic, they forever hear something calling them back home, but they don't know where home is.

Excerpt: 'Your Republic Is Calling You'

Your Republic Is Calling You
Your Republic is Calling You
By Young-ha Kim
Paperback, 336 pages
Mariner Books
List Price: $14.95

7:00 A.M.
SPEAK UP
HE OPENS HIS EYES. He feels heavy and his breath stinks. Slowly, his brain whirs into activity, and a word gradually reveals itself, like a stranger emerging from fog. Headache. He has never in his entire life suffered from a headache, but he would have to agree if someone pronounced that what he feels is indeed a headache. He thinks it odd that such an insidious, unfamiliar throbbing could be expressed in one bland word — "headache." This intricate amalgam of physical pain and psychic irritation started last night; it triggered an ominous feeling about everything that would soon unfold in the world beyond his bed. He feels a passing disgust at his own body. It's as if his soul, having lain dormant in his body, woke up, discovered the heavy and authoritative being trapping it, and began pounding on it loudly in protest.
Lying still, he thinks about his headache, his agony growing worse. A small needle is stabbing the back of his head. He doesn't know how to deal with it. He resolves to think of this mysterious pain as a temporary visitor, which makes it easier to tolerate. He stretches out to caress his wife's hip. She moves away, mumbling nasally. He pushes his hand deep into her panties and strokes the hair sprouting all the way up to her belly button, but she doesn't react. He slides his hand out of her underwear and rubs his eyes.
She asks, still half asleep, "Aren't you going to work?"
"Huh?"
"Aren't you going to work?"
"What about you?"
"Feed the cat." She buries her face into her pillow.
Ki-yong pushes the covers off and gets out of bed slowly. The cat comes over and rubs her head on his feet as she does each morning, demanding food. He measures out some cat food with a stainless steel scoop and pours it into her bowl. The cat, whose mottled brown, black, and white fur creates a map of the world on her body, contentedly chomps on her kibble. He gently strokes her neck, then goes into the bathroom, takes out his night guard, and places it in a cup.
Last winter, his dentist warned: "If you don't do something about that teeth grinding, you're going to need dentures soon."
Ki-yong unscrews the cap of the mouthwash bottle and pours the blue liquid into the cup holding his custom-made mouthpiece. He squeezes toothpaste onto his toothbrush, his thoughts wandering to the small needle poking his brain. The more he tries to forget about the needle, the more insistent it becomes. Now it attacks one spot persistently, like a wire jabbing at a clogged pipe. He taps the back of his head with his hand but it doesn't help.
"Dad."
He looks into the mirror at his daughter with the toothbrush still in his mouth.
"Are you feeling okay?" she asks.
"Iffwoffing." He wants to say "It's nothing," but his toothbrush is in the way. Hyon-mi pokes him in the back, her lips dancing as she tries to hide her smile. Wearing pink Mickey Mouse pajamas, the fifteen-year-old drags herself to the dining table. She pours Kellogg's cereal into a bowl, opens the fridge, and takes out the milk carton. The cereal crackles as the milk fills the bowl. She crunches on her breakfast. The cat wanders by, rubbing against Hyon-mi's foot. It feels like a slinking snake to Hyon-mi.
"Meooowwwr," the cat protests, as if she knows what the girl is thinking.
After rinsing, Ki-yong comes out of the bathroom and picks up the cat. Only at that point does his wife, Ma-ri, step out of the bedroom, in her underwear. She isn't wearing a bra and the blue veins threading past her nipples make her look cold. She scratches her stomach with her left hand, encased in a cast, while covering a yawn with the other. Approaching the table, she tousles Hyon-mi's hair with her injured hand.
"Did you sleep well?" Ma-ri asks her daughter.
Hyon-mi shakes her head. Hyon-mi hates that her mother walks around the house half naked, so she won't even glance at Ma-ri when she isn't wearing anything. Ki-yong presses his fingers against his temple and offers, "My head hurts."
"You never get headaches," Ma-ri says.
"Well, I guess I do now."
"What's wrong with you?" Ma-ri throws back, heading into the bathroom.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Sorry, I meant to say something else. Is it a migraine? Is it only on one side?"
"It feels like a needle is sticking into my brain. When does your cast come off?"
His question is buried under the flow of water. "What?" she asks, frowning.
"The cast on your arm."
"Oh, they told me to come by next week. It's so itchy, it feels like ants are crawling around in there."
"Maybe they are."
Ma-ri closes the bathroom door. She broke her wrist two weeks ago, when a department store escalator lurched to a stop and she fell, unable to stay on her feet against the crush of people behind her.
"You should listen to Yuki Kuramoto," Hyon-mi instructs Ki-yong as she places her bowl in the sink.
"Yuki who?"
"He's a Japanese pianist. He's supposed to be good for headaches."
"You're kidding."
"Dad, you're not one of those people who think kids only say stupid things, are you?" asks Hyon-mi, shooting him a look.
"No."
"So give it a try, okay?"
Hyon-mi is already holding out a Yuki Kuramoto CD. He takes it and slides it in his briefcase. For a split second, Ki-yong feels as if he were floating. It's a joyous feeling, a sensation of his heels lifting slightly off the ground. The mere act of holding the CD is alleviating his pain. Or is it the solace of his daughter's worried expression?
Feeling buoyant, he tells Hyon-mi, "I think it's working already."
"See, told you." Hyon-mi heads into her room to change.
Ki-yong hears Ma-ri flush. He goes into the master bathroom, washes his face, and starts to shave. The water is warm and the suds are soft on his face. He wipes his face with a towel and reviews his schedule for the day. He doesn't think he will be that busy. He has to settle the accounts with a theater in the afternoon, but since it's only a formality, a phone call will do.
He picks out a brand-new shirt and a bluish gray silk tie. He puts on a navy jacket, and he's ready for work. Briefcase in hand, he knocks on the bathroom door.
"Are you going to be late tonight?" he asks Ma-ri.
"What?" Ma-ri opens the door and pokes her head out. "What did you say?"
"Are you going to be late tonight?"
Ma-ri thinks for a second and shakes her head. "I'm not sure. What about you?"
"I don't have any plans, but I'm not sure either."
Hyon-mi comes out of her room, fastening the blouse buttons of her school uniform. She pushes her feet into her Pumas and yanks open the front door. Ki-yong follows her.
"Then everyone's on their own for dinner," Ma-ri says.
"Okay, see you later," Ki-yong tells Ma-ri.
"Yeah, okay," Ma-ri says, following them to the front door. "Hyon-mi, you're coming home straight from school, right?"
"What for? Nobody's going to be here anyway."
"Where are you going to be, then?"
"I don't know." Hyon-mi slams the door behind her.
Ma-ri reopens it a crack and admonishes her daughter, her face solemn. "You have to understand that we're busy with work. You don't even go to cram schools. Where do you think you're going to go?"
"I'm not going anywhere!" Hyon-mi shoots back.
This time, Ma-ri closes the door without a word. Ki-yong and Hyon-mi stand in silence in front of the elevator. The doors open and they get on.
"Dad."
"Yeah?"
"You guys are really weird sometimes. It's like you're expecting me to get in trouble. You really don't trust me?"
"No, it's just that scary things happen."
"Well, you don't have to worry about me," Hyon-mi says, and pouts. The elevator arrives at the first floor. They exit, one after the other. "See you later, Dad," Hyon-mi calls out as Ki-yong heads toward the underground garage.
"See you later."
Walking down to the garage, Ki-yong's head starts to pound again. The needles, having multiplied, swim slowly in his brain.

Excerpted from Your Republic is Calling You by Young-ha Kim.  Copyright Young-ha Kim and Munhakdongne Publishing Co, Ltd., Korea 2006.  English translation copyright 2010 by Chi-Young Kim.  Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  All rights reserved.

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