‘I often say the Party actually knows us better than we know ourselves.’
In case you weren’t able to tell from some of my reading choices, I have a great interest in particular periods of history, specifically the Roman Empire, the late fifteenth century, and the Soviet Union under Stalin (from the 1920s to the early 1950s). Some of my favourite books I read last year – a relative term, considering their dark subject matter – were Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland, and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore. These were large, intimidating historical tomes, yet they were incredibly readable and explored their chosen subjects with great insight and fascinating details. But the sad fact of the matter is, although the USSR collapsed twenty-eight years ago, there is a nation that lives up to its repression and brutality, and is perhaps even worse, that still exists in our world today. North Korea.
North Korea has been in the news a great deal lately, due to the Supreme Leader’s dealings with President Trump, but The Limits of the World has nothing to do with this. Published in 2015, this is a work of fiction that explores the lives of a North Korean tour guide, various members of the Party, and two Western journalists in disguise as tourists. I bought this book as I was intrigued by the premise – while I will admit I don’t know much about the so-called ‘hermit kingdom’, from my reading about Russia I am familiar with the ideas of repressive regimes, secret meetings, and those trying to rebel against the system. The opportunity to learn more about such a regime still current in our modern day was one I couldn’t pass up.
‘None of these actually – legally – belonged to him, they were the Party’s. The only things Han owned were inside him, in his head: that sacred piece of real estate that could at once both imprison and set a man free, its padlock hidden away from both intruder and owner.’
Set in 2011, we meet our protagonist Han as he returns from the countryside to the capital, taking up a new position within the Party and moving into an unfinished apartment building. Even within the first few pages of the book, we get a sense of the bleakness and corruption of his world, with the Party officials getting drunk on illegal whisky, and Han needing to immediately hang his portraits of the Supreme Leader and his son in his apartment before he can do anything else. The narrative then introduces us to the English Ben and American Hal, two journalists posing as tourists to gain entry into North Korea. They make documentaries and post articles concerning repressive regimes around the world, and have their own difficult pasts to deal with as much as Han does. Although the book changes from their narrative to Han’s and back again throughout, it never feels choppy or forced, and the relationship that develops between the three men was wonderfully and realistically crafted.
Han has another fragile relationship too, not just with the Party and his own ideas about his country, but with his new neighbour, Mae. Believing she feels the same way he does, he confesses to her, helps her to hide her banned books from a Party inspection, and even joins her in a secret meeting of an underground book club. While I expected this book club to be a bigger part of the plot, I really liked the literature angle both here and throughout the novel, with 1984 especially echoing the characters’ stories. Although this did become repetitive and was a bit too on the nose at times, the importance of literature in this repressed and lonely society came across beautifully, as it brought a sense of belonging and connection to the characters especially when ‘The books that moved them most were about places and times they would never otherwise know.’.
‘Lo-chang didn’t bother trying to comfort him. Nothing shocked him anymore, he was always able to find a more horrendous anecdote.’ […] “Death doesn’t mean anything. Not anymore. Not here.”
Although this book was well-researched and, for the most part, realistic, I found the ending to be a bit contrived, with everything neatly tied together. As hopeful as it was, I feel it detracted from the rest of the novel, particularly since it came not long after a particularly brutal flashback to one character’s time spent in a labour camp, and their eventual execution. That being said, despite its dark subject matter I did enjoy this book – if enjoy is the right word to use here – and reading it has inspired me to look as much to our present day as I do to the past.