Sunday, August 14, 2011

James Church: Hidden Moon (2007)

Second in the Inspector O series, after A Corpse in the Koryo.  I won't bother to try and summarize the plot, because I don't think I understand it.  Something about a bank robbery and a coup attempt and a Scottish intelligence agent who isn't.  More than most thrillers, a certain amount of haziness in the details of the plot is to be expected here, or maybe lauded:  the subtext of this series is how in a totalitarian state you can't trust anything.  Everybody lies to everybody about everything.  Communication is a matter of parsing lies.  If you don't understand, in the end, just exactly what's gone down, well:  welcome to the club.

To describe the situation as Kafkaesque is maybe too obvious - Kafka, after all, is one of the great progenitors of the spy novel.  But I think Church is hoping we'll be put in mind, not just of the great tradition of espionage thrillers that preserve and expand upon Kafka's wicked insights into the absurdist character of the modern state, but of Kafka himself.  I think that's what's going on with the name of his main character, Inspector O.  "O" is a perfectly serviceable, even common surname in Korean.  Therefore, the Inspector's appellation in these books isn't an initial or a code name:  it's just his name.  But the reader, I'd argue, can't help but be reminded of Kafka's ubiquitous K - can't help but think of O as an initial or a code name.  And if we do we may be reminded of things like The Trial or The Castle, and we may reach the conclusion that life in a totalitarian state like this so oppresses the individual, so alienates him (or her) from his (or her) own desires, that one's own identity becomes a code-name, an alias.  Everybody lies about everything.

I loved the first book.  Is it a worthy sequel?  Pretty much.  The tone is a bit lighter - O's narration is less mordant and more in the vein of black humor, and he and his new superior even engage in some banter.  On the one hand I found this a little less richly involving than the pervasive melancholy and sobriety of the first book.  But this kind of gallows humor certainly isn't inappropriate or even unexpected in depictions of this kind of society.  It fits.

Other than the humor, not much has changed about O.  His tics and his opinions are the same.  The most memorable of the former is his habit of carrying around scrap bits of wood in his pockets and keeping them in his desk drawers;  in idle moments or times of stress he'll sand them or just finger them.  It's an effective device in establishing him as somebody who in a different time and place would have been a cabinetmaker, say.  He's the Reluctant Warrior;  there's also a resonance with the East Asian Confucian ideal of the scholar-gentleman with his public life and his private creative, wholesome pursuits.

His opinions - well, the thing I like most about this character is how neatly he resists being co-opted into a narrative of "poor North Koreans yearning to be free."  I mean, basically the whole point of the series is to help us understand how somebody like O can chafe against the restrictions and privations that his country gives him as a patrimony but at the same time be quietly, fiercely patriotic when it comes to serving that country.  A recurring theme is his encounters with Western intelligence agents who assume that O is just champing at the bit to defect, when in fact that's the last thing he has in mind.  He loves his country.  The wood ties in with this, too, I think - he's conscious of the kinds of trees that grow in North Korea, their uses and personalities, and there's something symbolic about his penchant for remaining in physical contact with them, even when surrounded by concrete and asphalt.  Like, his love for his country doesn't have much to do with the state superstructure that currently stands on it - it goes deeper, into the trees and rocks.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You caught the tone change in Hidden Moon just right. Have to admit, I'm looking forward to your reaction to the next two in the series. JChurch