At 42, Ki-yong Kim’s life divides neatly in two. He spent his first 21 years in and around his native Pyongyang, North Korea, where he was trained rigorously for espionage in the south. For the past 21 years he’s been undercover in Seoul. He married an unsuspecting woman and they have an unsuspecting daughter.
He would do occasional dirty work for his Communist taskmasters until communication dried up. In time, he assumed he’d been forgotten. And then one day his number is up -- literally: Out of the blue he receives Order No. 4, the order to return.
Young-ha Kim’s tense, expertly constructed novel “Your Republic Is Calling You” follows Ki-yong, his wife, Ma-ri, and their 15-year-old, Hyon-mi, hour by hour over the course of that harrowing day. It can’t be coincidental that the date is the Ides of March.
For a Cold War novel (from practically the only country where one can still be written), it’s surprisingly light on ideology. Ki-yong’s decision to stay or go back hinges entirely on practical matters -- above all, where he has a better chance of remaining alive.
Over 21 years undercover he’s grown into his disguise, much as the Russian spies recently uncovered in suburban America grew into theirs.
As a youth he was chosen for his excellence. But in turning himself into the kind of man you wouldn’t pick out of a crowd, he’s become placid and pot-bellied. His emotions are grayer than his hair. Ma-ri lost her feelings for him long ago.
Meanwhile, her own confidence and ambition have seeped away. As Ki-yong nears his meeting with destiny, she gets ready for a worrisome rendezvous with her lover, a smug 20-year-old whose sexual demands -- he’s been pressing her to do something she really doesn’t want to -- are starting to give her the creeps.
Ki-yong and Ma-ri are such disappointments to themselves that the optimism of their daughter, Hyon-mi -- sunny, bright, and ready to be kissed -- feels like the author’s nasty joke, as though he thinks a good look at her once-promising parents would show her what’s in store.
As a thriller saddled with depression, “Your Republic Is Calling You” recalls John le Carre and late Graham Greene, and its noirish view of squelched dreams amid the general crumminess of life has a bit of Raymond Chandler, too. And, like Chandler, it’s charged and funny even at its bleakest.
It opens a window on a world of assassins and triple-crosses and controlled panic and, in one amazing scene, a subterranean movie-set-like re-creation of Seoul where foreign hostages train fledgling North Korean spies. (The author says he read about it in Newsweek.)
After only a few pages it’s clear that Young-ha Kim is a master novelist. He was born in Hwacheon, South Korea, in 1968, and began publishing (and winning major prizes) in the 1990s. “Your Republic Is Calling You” is the fourth of his five novels, but only the second to appear in English.
With its casual style (a triumph of translation by Chi-Young Kim) and its hectic plot, it would do fine as a beach book. Yet it’s something much deeper: an eye-opening depiction of the globalization of Eastern society. Apart from the names and the foods, little in the book will seem unfamiliar to a Western reader.
The author’s range of reference encompasses Asian literature and pop, Thoreau and Kafka, “Buena Vista Social Club,” Raphael’s Madonnas and, not least, “The Empire of Light,” Magritte’s painting of a sunlit sky blandly perched over a nighttime street, an image that governs a climactic scene.
“The Empire of Light” was also the novel’s name when it came out in South Korea four years ago, and it captures the irony and the strangeness of this grave, witty book.
“Your Republic Is Calling You” is published by Mariner (326 pages, $14.95 paperback). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)