Kang Chol-Hwan was 9 years old when he and his family were taken to Yodok, one of North Korea’s gulags. The whole family sent away for one person’s political views. He grew up in the camp, imprisoned by cruel guard and the very geography of the site, hills that he once thought beautiful. Toiling through forced labour and balancing on the brink of starvation, The Aquariums of Pyongyang is the first account of its kind to come out of the country.

I’m afraid this was a bit of a disappointment. I’ve just finished typing up the notes from our book group discussion thinking we sound like a heartless bunch but the book just didn’t live up to its promise. I probably knew enough about North Korea that the events weren’t surprising but I do think it would serve as a general introduction to the political climate of the country (at least 13 years ago, although I’m not sure much has changed expect more people have got out and a famine has ravaged the population further).

First off, I’ll give you a bit of background on the birth of this book. Kang, a translator and Pierre Rigoulot sat down in a room in South Korea. Kang told his story in Korean and it was translated verbally into French and Pierre wrote it down (also in French). It was published in France and then picked up in America to be translated into English from the French. It’s been through the ringer. I’m not even sure the end translation is to blame as it feels like the story is pretty much the original transcripts. No dramatic tension or narrative flare has been added. This makes it factual but not gripping.

So we were all left with a slight feeling of guilt for being bored by Kang’s terrible story. Although, I think he had it easy compared to others. They managed to mostly keep out of trouble within the camp and some of the family ended up with what were considered the cushy jobs. This is all relative though; Yodok itself was one of the camps for less criminal prisoners. Kang’s crime was merely to be related to someone who spoke out untowardly towards the regime. The whole thing is horrific, but the telling of it is just so unemotional, I just didn’t feel anything. And you know me, I cry at books all the time. I finished this completely dry eyed. I only bothered to read to the end because it was 1) for book group, 2) short and 3) fairly easy, if uninspiring, prose.

There were lots of bits and pieces I wanted to know more about. Wikipedia managed to engage me more on the subject of pellagra for instance (and how it was prevalent in the early days of American colonisation). So much had potential to be expanded up but it was just glossed over. Perhaps Kang’s desire to get the truth out meant that he stuck to the bare facts that he could remember, not allowing any embellishment whatsoever. That is understandable, really, but it doesn’t make for an engaging read or emotional connection. It doesn’t inspire any passion or outrage in the reader. Kang’s goal has succeeded in that we know what’s going on; did he not want us to be egged into action too?

All the book group write-ups can now be found on our new blog (Vicky has written the majority). Beware, they do contain spoilers as we always discuss the ending and important passages.

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