Alexander KAN. Lasting Call: My Return to North Korea

Dedicated to my daughter Katya

(Translated by Yoon Kan, Berkeley University of California)


View from the burial hill in the city of Hamhung


Ladies and gentlemen, let me begin with a passage from my first short story, “The Rules of the Game.” Written in 1987, this story defined the meaning and direction of my subsequent work.

“And it came back to me, how last year mother carried out her spring cleaning and washed the windows. Outside stood Spring, sunny and slushy, without a trace of the bitter winter except what was jammed in the latch, and the window would not open. She brought out a hammer and chisel then, and aiming the chisel, hit herself on the finger, not too seriously, but she burst into tears, crying out: “It’s as if there are no men in the house! None at all!” I was taken aback and was about to say that there really weren’t any: grandfather was gone earning money, and I was still useless…But I understood from how long and bitterly she wept, that it wasn’t to me that my mother was expressing her resentment, or to grandfather, who was a thousand kilometers away, but to some other blind force that had taken away my father, who remained in another country, about whom I knew one should only be harmoniously silent, and then I got angry and told her: “And, what, am I not a man to you?” I took the hammer and hit the window sash with all of my strength–left a dent on the windowsill, knocked the bolt out, and thus opened the window. Bright light poured in. Mother looked over there, to the window frame, and somehow her tear-stained face lit up anew–clean, as if washed by the rain, taking away the last of her resentment. She thought to herself, calmed down, looking into the space warmed by Spring, full of the first bloom, and I calmed down, seeing how the thin skin of her face pinkened, eyes wide open, still full of tears, and then I realized,–realized that to the heart despite reason, that one cannot get away from this evil alien force: it will for a long time yet break, tear, destroy us…”

It was precisely this evil force I thought about when last summer, in 2012, I found out that my sister and I would cross the ocean to North Korea, to the birthplace of our father. His name was Kan Ho Eun.  He was a citizen of North Korea, graduated with a degree in Chemistry from Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, took part in the Korean War from 1950-1953, and later was sent to study at Leningrad University as a graduate student, where he met my mother, a Soviet student named Iskra Choi. There, in Leningrad, they got married, and there my sister Anna was born. After finishing graduate school, my father returned with his family to Pyongyang in 1956, where I was born in 1960. But when I turned one, the political relations between the USSR and DPRK, after Khruschev’s famous denunciation of Stalin’s cult of personality, became so complicated that many Soviet citizens working in Korea began to leave the country. Among them was my mother, who having decided it one day, took us, the children, into her arms and returned home. Since then, I had never seen my father, and knew nothing about him except that he had a new family and that he died at a very young age.

So, as the trip was inevitable, I was flooded with mixed feelings. First, confusion and even skepticism– why, after so many years, dig up the past? Second, shyness of the properties of ‘pure’ Koreans–how was I to behave myself with my own unexpectedly announced brother and sisters, on top of not knowing the native language? And third, of course, the long ago, almost forgotten wish, which with the passage of time only increased, because at some point I had so strongly dreamed of being back in that place where I was born.

Finally, on September 16, 2012, my sister and I departed, first to Beijing, and then, after a brief, nervewracking flight, we were in Pyongyang. We were met by people from the Department of Foreign Affairs that deal with foreign nationals, were settled in the high rise hotel Yangakdo on the bank of the Taedong River in the heart of the capital, and here, accompanied by a translator, we began our prepared excursions around the sights surrounding Pyongyang. And these were: Mangyongdae village, where Kim Il Sung was born, the Juche Monument, the Monument commemorating the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the Triumphal Arch, erected in honor of the Korean resistance against Japanese invaders, Memorial Cemetery of revolutionaries on Mount Teson, and much, much more. I saw and understood that Pyongyang was demonstrating to the whole world the achievements of their political power, which we, the guests, had taken for granted.

A few days later, we met up with our half-sister Yong Ran and her family: her husband, a builder, and two sons who, touchingly, had decided to devote their lives to classical music. Afterwards, dinner at a restaurant, where there was crying and tears, constant communication difficulties through an interpreter–and as a result, the lack of precise meaning, attempts to remember our father, who Anna still vaguely remembered having lived in Pyongyang until she was five, and of course, a kind of aftertaste, an acute sense of reticence. The next day, early in the morning, we went to the city of Hamhung to meet with our brothers and visit the grave of our father. A many-hour trip to the east of the country, through endless fields of corn and rice, along winding dirt roads along which peasants walked, sat, and rested, lying on the ground. The fact that they just lay there on the ground, gathering strength for some reason struck me, and I’ll say more about that later.

At last, we were in Hamhung, the center of the chemical industry, where we met with our brothers Gen Ho and Gen Soo, who, wiping away tears, immediately took us out of town, to our father’s grave. Coming off the bus, we saw a mountain, on the slopes of which extended the burial hills. Another 15 minutes’ climb, and there we were at our father’s grave, upon which Gen Ho placed his photograph.

I had already been containing my feelings with difficulty. My sister and I, following the lead of our relatives, fell to our knees, bowed down to the ground in which our father lay. Then, after a ritual walk around the hill, bowing several more times, Gen Ho spread the table around which we all settled. At the table, again through the rocky explanations of the interpreter, the stories of my brothers about our father, through which I finally found out that being a great chemist, he was sent to important work in Hamhung, headed the department there, worked hard, achieved much scientific success, then fell seriously ill, and to the end of the his days, already having other children, my father–much to my surprise!–still waited for our return. A father’s call, sent from afar!

Getting up from the table, as if to smoke, but really to cope with the all the emotions that listening to such sorrowful stories raised, I looked down the hill to the suburbs spreading below, but in a strange way saw no earthly landscapes. Instead I saw my whole life–how as a young boy I dreamed of meeting with my father, imagining how he’d come in, tall and stately, through the door of our home in Almaty, and I would throw myself into his arms…But time passed and nothing happened–school, then the institute–and all of my dreams about my father became more and more elusive.  Then, his image disappeared amid fast-paced student life, perhaps for a moment timidly returning and then disappearing again. And after graduating from the institute, already working as an engineer, I think I completely forgot about him. And suddenly, in my nostalgia for my Moscow friends and girlfriends, to escape the routine of my engineering life, as it seemed to me then, I began to write poetry, articles, and stories. Then, finding my calling that way, I studied fiction writing at the Gorky Institute of Literature in Moscow.  At the same time that I began to study the work of Vladimir Nabokov, and other great modernist writers who helped me to identify my hero.

And going deeper inside myself, I suddenly understood who had been the reason for my unexpected lyrical madness–everywhere, in every line and between the lines, from hidden depths shone, flickered the image of my father, and the first full-length story “The Rules of the Game,” from which I quoted at the beginning of this talk, was just  permeated by his breath. And so it was that I thought then, standing on the mountain, at the burial hill in the city of Hamhung that my father never disappeared and that he had always been near me, only stepping aside from time to time so as to not keep me from going about my day-to-day life. And then I though very seriously to myself. How strange is the nature of life if it is influenced entirely not by those living, present and near to us, but those who have gone! And what, then, is more important for us, the living or the dead? And what then is living and what is dead? Let us try to answer these questions.

Gauguin’s Mysterious Still Life

Paul Gauguin has a painting, his 1888 “Still Life with Fruit,” which has always bewitched me from the first time I saw it. In this painting, at the edge of the table, in the upper left corner, you see a face of a girl who looks, fascinated, at the pears, peaches, and grapes lying on the tabletop, wherein her face is painted the same exact colors as the fruit. Looking at this painting, I always asked the question, why is she so fixedly watching–from the black slits of her eyes–these fruits? It would be simple to say that she is hungry, that she wants to take a juicy-sweet bite, but the unearthly longing in her eyes for such simple, earthly things, of course, suggests something else entirely.

Evidently, she dreams of turning into these fruits, of going into the world of inanimate objects, from her seemingly animate world, where she lives so painfully. Moreover, the fact that her face is depicted in the same swampy colors as the objects of her lust, only confirms my strange hunch: it’s as if the artist has prepared her for this otherworldly, metaphysical transition–it just remains to carry this transition out.

Now, after a while, when I remember our trip to North Korea, Gauguin’s 1888 still life appears again before my eyes. So I as well, perhaps, like that strange girl, would like to be one of the “mute,” law-abiding citizens of North Korea, strictly arranged, each in his place, by a strong ruling hand, in this political still life of 2012. I would like to be one of them only because they live on my native soil, which, as in the case of those peasants on the road to Hamhung, nourishes their lifeblood, gives them the strength to live, to walk and to work, even if it is on someone else’s orders. Such is the complicated feeling that always overwhelms me when I think of this unexpected journey to the past, and my conversations with my sister, about who we would have become if we had lived in this country, only strengthen my strange fantasies. But this view is only from one side…

Time is a Taxidermist

And from the other side, looking at my humble relatives, scared to say too much in the presence of intelligence personnel–and they accompanied us everywhere and always–I could not help remembering my own totalitarian past, when we all, citizens of the Soviet country, lived, worked, thought, felt under control from above. Then the empire collapsed, and new times had come: first, Gorbachev’s perestroika, the dizzying hope and universal peace; after that, total ruin, abominable desolation, criminal lawlessness. Then came a time of a sort of alleged stability–gas, oil, those who stole already would not give them up– and on the stage of life appeared hitherto unseen people, Homo Vacuus, Homo Cavus, that is, creatures hollow, glamourous, on the one hand; and on the other, for those who remained poor, the beggars, so to speak, in the cold, there remained only one dusty support–nostalgia for the Soviet Union.

Accordingly, from my inherent naivete, I was surprised at how people changed, dwelling in different times: from joining the Communist Party, to protesting publicly in grandstands against the very same party, to opening corporations, then, for the sake of money, stealing and killing their own partners and even sometimes friends, to merging and collapsing from within, then suddenly transforming into these glamorous zombies, or again–we come full circle!–to the defense of the socialist system. It appears that Time is always a taxidermist who mockingly stuffs us with some entrails or another, depending on its own capricious, unpredictable preferences, simply turning us into walking scarecrows. Well, and what of it? I already hear my disturbed opponent ask. A person needs to adapt to changing times, to simply survive for his family, children, relations, and I don’t argue with that. But, nevertheless I would argue that there is still something absolute, something timeless left in us that distinguishes us from the hollow beings,. And that would be what exactly? And how, in this tumultuous change of political formations do people remain human?

Moreover, this question is more than relevant for North Korea, in which, meeting with its inhabitants, I cannot help but think of what enormous political and social changes would have to occur in there in order for its citizens, overcoming their age-old fear of the regime, to become truly free people! When we were alone together, my relatives were very sincerely interested in what was happening with us in Kazakhstan, and in the world in general. After which, I concluded that they were not people totally duped by totalitarian propaganda, but were living, thinking people, wishing to live like human beings, and so in a sense, cynical–like we Soviet citizens had been in our time!–perfectly aware of the fact that the path along which the state moved was definitely not the truth in the last instance.

The Lucky Metamorphosis

When I ask the important question of man’s existence, I’m immediately reminded of a lucky transformation, one confined to the world of literature. I have in mind the legendary short story of Franz Kafka, “The Metamorphosis,” in which the unfortunate salesman Gregor Samsa in the stupor of his mechanical work as a cloth salesman, suddenly transforms into a beetle. Then poor Samsa becomes accustomed to his new state, of course, to the horror and despair of his family, which keeps him locked away in a room. And since they then no longer have his income, they need to rent out part of the apartment to tenants. One day overhearing Gregor’s sister playing the violin by herself in her room, the tenants ask her to play in person for them after a hearty dinner.

Crawling out of his room, becoming a witness to this scene, Samsa, perhaps for the first time in his life, experiences a deep, tender feeling for his sister. Not on the run, as usual, in the crazy rush and stress of things to do, when no serious feeling could have possibly arisen in him, he stays instead in the existential stillness offered him by his present body. And then one of the tenants much to their horror and disgust finds this domestic monster in the living room. Scandal, screams, the tenants refuse to pay rent, and, slamming the door, leave. And the sister, Gregor’s beloved sister, proposes to their parents that they get rid of him. And the unlucky brother, lacking the strength to endure this treachery, dies the very next night.

Thus, in this honest, cruel portrait I saw, first, a portrait of those who at no point ever belonged to themselves–not in the days of wild capitalism that came, when the only necessity was earning money, or especially earlier when, as a citizen of the Soviet empire, one lived among strict ideological prohibitions. And second, already in a timeless context, Kafka showed us how one could be externally a model person in society and inside an insect, transforming into an insect but inside a person. And in this, it would seem, lies the humanistic pathos of an immortal novella. Thirdly, I am absolutely sure that the great Kafka became the great forerunner of many notable Russian and post-Soviet writers who consequently developed this given theme, one of the brightest representatives of which is my classmate Viktor Pelevin, demonstrating in his own work that the problem of human freedom does not at all diminish with the onset of supposedly “free” post-totalitarian times.

So, in our thinking quickly arises the question of how to implement such a lucky transformation into a living person in practice? After all, you can’t, of course, just turn into a cockroach somehow! In order to answer this question, I return once more to my father, to his image. At the beginning of my talk, I quoted from my first short story, so obviously permeated with longing for my father. This story was written at the end of the 1980’s, when the whole of the Soviet system collapsed, and I, just like Gregor Samsa, was trying to earn money for myself and my young family. But suddenly, my father appeared to me, emerging from his nonexistence before me, and I chose to look at rather than neglect his blurred image.  I heard, saw, understood that he was looking for one thing– Compassion.

Thus, turning away from my urgent affairs, I threw myself recklessly down this hole in order to finally deal with my father.  And here’s the moment of truth: Even though he was dead, he was more important and more precious to me than any living thing. And then I rushed to him entirely not as I had dreamed I would in childhood–in the Alma-Ata yard rushing into his arms–but diving straight into his non-existence; that is, talking with him, asking for myself, answering–like a crazy person–for him, and vice versa, asking for my father and answering for myself.

And so I created my literature, a growing tree of life straight from my heart.  From my empathy and compassion came stories, novels, essays, and after my father appeared to me, so did others already deceased, my grandmother, grandfather, all repressed people, and even the prematurely departed, those dear to my heart, girlfriends and friends. And this literature was by definition confessional and existential, as it spoke only of my loss and troubles, my feelings and experiences, which I placed principally at the center of my built universe. And that’s exactly how–through compassion– I metamorphosized into a living person.

Paradise Lost and Found

So I visited my homeland, bowed at the tomb of my father. In other words, the call, sent to me from a  metaphysical distance, all the same found me later, forty years after the death of my father! True, later, once I had already returned home, I thought about all of it, about all that happened with us.  It all happened, alas, too late. Such is the sad law of eternally missed connections! But still I thought that my conversations with the “departed” had concluded. My father heard me, he’d encouraged and recognized me. Or, to speak without mysticism or false pathos, I appeared before him with dignity, ashamed for none of the actions in my life.

And now I ask the natural question, what kind of image of North Korea do I see in my present and future after visiting my homeland? And is it worth it in general to speak about this closed, backward, miserable, totalitarian country?…I can only say one thing, that by the virtue of my own biography, of its close connection to my father, to his image, North Korea for me–whatever it was!–will always be a lost paradise. And that’s why through literature I tried, with the tenacity of a mad and naive child, to find that paradise in my soul regardless of what happened in the real world. This powerful message, which I set into motion, beyond the bounds of reason, articulated the following:


I will hear North Korea’s call forever.  But as a former citizen of a totalitarian state, I will only consider North Korea’s political, social, and spiritual prospects only as they pertain to its development into a society of free people.  Or, speaking in the context of our own reflections, the political still life must one day become a living painting, even if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime. What do I mean by this?

The split and tragedy in my family occurred precisely because of the collision of two authoritarian regimes. My mother, as a Soviet citizen, was objectionable to the local authorities. My father, as true citizen of North Korea, could not leave the country to follow after her, and so turned into just another insignificant detail of the local social still life. And this is why the native people were to me puppets in the hands of the authorities. Of course, this would not have been possible if my mother and father were living in democratic countries. Therefore I wish my compatriots, especially bearing in mind my relatives, only one thing: to one day attain a free North Korea, and, accordingly, personal liberty and the responsibility for one’s own existence, and that will make their lives truly living and priceless.

Attaining this will of course be difficult.  I can attest to this as a citizen of post-Soviet Kazakhstan, in which freedom is often perceived by people as chaos, anarchy, mad passion for personal gain, and the complete destruction of morality and family…. As a result of which we now have a hypocritical society and the utter confusion of young people before such a cloudy and hazy future spat upon by their parents. But as we know, the road is only overcome by walking!

And since we are all in this, each in his or her own country, continuing our own ways, and since that alien, evil force I referred to in my first story still separates and tears us apart, I practice literature, that is, the imagination, creating a time machine for my soul. It allows me at any age, any place in the world, to meet the people close to me, though they’ve already departed from this world. That’s how I meet my father. And that’s how I regain my lost paradise, setting right the ruptures of the past!

Alone with my father, we conduct leisurely conversations about Love and Despair, the political regimes that separate people but do not destroy their memories and feelings. I tell my father about steadfast loyalty to oneself–to one’s loss and trouble–about literature as the great struggle for one’s destiny and dignity, about not living a borrowed life, the fulfillment of these promises, and also about my daughter, his granddaughter, who inherited from me this gift: finding oneself in this world, to hear the call of one’s ancestors.

Berkeley, December 7, 2013


Ссылка по теме: Александр Кан. Над тёмной водой (эссе об отце)

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