Review of Nuclear Blues, Bradley Martin K. Martin (Great Leader Books, 2017, 321 pages)
It’s not easy to write about North Korea. It’s tough to get there, and it’s even tougher to talk to North Koreans freely if you do manage to visit. A good deal of material about the country is speculative, anecdotal, and often downright wrong.
Given the challenges of getting at the essence of the country, it’s awful tempting to just make things up.
Two novelists who have done just that are Adam Johnson, who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master’s Son, and James Church, who produces the Inspector O mystery series.
Bradley Martin is the latest entrant into the field.
Martin is a veteran journalist who published one of the most in-depth investigations of the North Korean leadership, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, back in 2004. At nearly a thousand pages, it’s an exhaustive and illuminating study.
Martin’s most recent book, Nuclear Blues, is a novel. But in many ways it reads like journalism. That can be both good and bad.
On the good side, Martin essentially provides, in novel form, an update on what’s happened in North Korea since he published his 2004 tome. He describes the transition in power from Kim Jong Il to his son Kim Jong Un and the palace intrigues that have ensued. He discusses the deepening nuclear crisis, the spread of corruption, and the worsening economic conditions for a large portion of the population.
Also, because Martin has been to North Korea, many of his descriptions have the ring of authenticity. His account of a tourist trip to Pyongyang is spot on, from the initial laying of flowers at the immense statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il to the items available at the gift shop at the Koryo Hotel. Excursions to the Demilitarized Zone and the International Friendship Exhibition (which houses all the gifts to the North Korean leaders) are also accurate in their details.
All of that is interesting, and I can imagine that quite a few readers not willing to invest the time and energy into reading a thousand-page book on the North Korean leadership will happily turn to Nuclear Blues to learn about North Korea in the form of a thriller.
The problems with the novel are two-fold.
First, Martin tells us a great deal more than he shows us. His characters are constantly providing huge chunks of information about North Korea as if each one is being interviewed by a journalist.
When the novel’s protagonist, the photographer and musician Heck Davis, meets someone who resembles Kim Il Sung’s grandson Kim Jong Un, the lookalike responds, “Judging from pictures taken when he was at school in Switzerland, he didn’t look particularly like the Great Leader. After his first adult public appearance and his promotion to four-star general in 2010, at the advanced age of 27, there were rumors they had done plastic surgery and put him on a reverse diet so he would gain weight and look just like his late grandfather. Makeup could also be involved.”
Don’t get me wrong: this is interesting. But don’t expect realistic dialogue in Nuclear Blues. Plus, many of the discussions that take place within North Korea are unrealistic because North Koreans are not exactly loquacious people, given the risks of talking too much, particularly to foreigners.
Which brings us to the novel’s second problem. In order to propel his narrative, Martin stretches the reader’s suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.
I’m not just talking about the plot, a truly Byzantine mixture of nuclear weapons, Christian evangelicals, and credit default swaps. I’m willing to give that a pass, given the demands of the genre. Also, there’s a lot about North Korea that sounds unbelievable – like the abduction of foreign nationals to serve as language tutors for North Korean spies – that’s actually true.
But other departures from reality are more problematic. Martin’s protagonist manages to go back and forth to North Korea without out much difficulty (even smuggling in a gun at one point). Martin imagines that the regime would allow a Christian-run academy, which is actually a front for something else entirely, to operate not for the children of the elite – like the actual existing Pyongyang University of Science and Technology – but for the children of defectors and other undesirables.
Perhaps the most improbable twist, however, is Martin’s construction of a resistance movement within the very top levels of the North Korean elite. It’s not that such a resistance movement in and of itself is improbable. Schisms have taken place within ruling circles, and military coups have been rumored to have been in the offing on several occasions.
But Martin, in what he calls in his afterward a “best-case scenario for an atrociously ruled country,” creates a resistance movement that is military-led yet embraces nuclear disarmament and market reforms. That’s as much of a fantasy as the other position that Martin rightly castigates in his book, that Kim Jong Un himself is a closet reformer who will westernize his country based on his childhood experience in Switzerland.
Even if you disagree and believe that all of these plot twists are plausible, one problem remains. For the average reader, it will not be at all clear where the reality of North Korea leaves off and Martin’s fantasy begins. This lack of clarity undermines the journalistic value of the book and does little enhance its novelistic virtues.
Still, for all its clunkiness, Nuclear Blues makes some important points about the challenges facing the two Koreas. So, in one of those cases of expositional dialogue, a North Korean character says, “Northerners are proud people who are unwilling to become a menial underclass wiping South Korean babies’ bottoms in a unified Korea. South Koreans who are competent in business, especially including defectors from the North, will be welcome to come up and help us achieve a level of affluence that would make such subordination unnecessary – but only if they refrain from taking advantage of our people’s naiveté through such predatory behavior as property speculation.”
That’s quite a mouthful. Although it’s not something I’d expect in a novel, it’s a key insight into the future of inter-Korean cooperation. You just have to wade through a lot of improbable narrative to get to it.
Korean Quarterly, Spring 2018