Monday, October 29, 2012

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes


Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes is the story of Kamal Al-Solaylee and his family, from the time of his birth as the last of eleven children in Aden, Yemen, to his arrival in Toronto where he currently works as a professor of journalism. I had recognized the name of the author from his columns in The Globe and Mail as well as Xtra!, Toronto's tiresomely whiny gay and lesbian biweekly. Based on what I already knew about the author, I thought that Intolerable would be an interesting read to find out about what it was like to grow up gay in the Arab world, including Yemen, perhaps the most homophobic place on the planet. From an early age Al-Solaylee realized he was different from other boys and exhibited stereotypically girlish behaviour. He hung out with his mother in the kitchen and played dress-up (in dresses) with a little more fashion sense than his own sisters.

Al-Solaylee spent his childhood on the move. As anticolonialism gripped Yemen in the late sixties, the family fled to Beirut, where they only stayed a little while until war there forced yet another move. Cairo became the destination where Al-Solaylee grew up and first acknowledged his gayness. In spite of the personal upheaval and day-to-day uncertainties of living in such a volatile area, Al-Solaylee filled his memoir with humour, most often with tales pertaining to his own life growing up as a gay youth. Ogling his sisters' Tom Jones album covers and seeing repeated screenings of Olivia Newton-John and especially Michael Beck in "Xanadu" were two of his memorable teenage experiences. Cairo also offered him a gay nightlife and the first opportunities he ever had in meeting other gay people (although they were probably in the theatre watching "Xanadu" with him but he didn't know it yet).

The growing movement towards fundamentalist and radical Islam in Cairo and neighbouring nations penetrated Al-Solaylee's family. One of his brothers changed from being a follower of rock music to a follower of the muezzin's call. This brother began to criticize his sisters for not wearing the hijab or niqab, and the entire family for not living according to his own interpretation of strict Islamic laws. Al-Solaylee does not mince words when he describes his brother's criticisms as poison to his family.

Economic necessity sent the family moving again, this time back to Yemen, however to Sana'a, not Aden:

"Whole districts felt like a movie set for a period piece, circa the seventeenth century, perhaps one of those racist Hollywood movies from the 1940s, Road to Morocco, or something with 'Ali Baba' in the title. The feeling of being a tourist in my own land offered temporary relief from the pain of losing Cairo."

Al-Solaylee as a gay man told himself that he could never return to live in Yemen, and sought out ways to leave the country. How could he live within his enormous family of two parents and ten siblings and hide his gayness? How can one keep such a secret from everyone? In cultures where mentioning the private details of one's sexual identity was unthinkable, ignorance was bliss. His family spent his entire lifetime denying the flamboyantly obvious; by not mentioning his homosexuality, it did not exist.

Eventually Al-Solaylee obtained a scholarship to study in England and then emigrated to Canada. Each time he returned to Sana'a he was shocked to see how the repressive state had affected his family:

"It's difficult to explain the feeling I, as an Arab person, get whenever I visit the Middle East, and especially Yemen. There's a sickness in the belly, a nervousness all over. Every trip back could turn into a long-term prison sentence. The prison could be emotional, as I confront a family that has changed and is visibly suffering, trapping me in guilt and uncertainty. Or physical, should the temperamental government declare me an abomination for writing in gay magazines or curating a program of short films for a gay and lesbian film festival."

In each visit Al-Solaylee noticed the health of his family deteriorate, as food and especially water supplies dwindled. The state of Yemen's health-care system was so poor that his family had to leave the country for simple procedures. It wasn't until near the end of the book that the title, Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes made sense. While Al-Solaylee conveys his feelings of not belonging in the various Middle Eastern cities he grew up in, I never felt that his state of mind was such that each place (Aden, Beirut, Cairo or Sana'a) was for him utterly intolerable. I only felt that the title was apt after he moved to Canada, experienced a fully out-of-the-closet gay life, and then compared it to the repressed and poor lives of his remaining family members back in Yemen. That life, for him, would have been intolerable.

This memoir is a slight book, at 204 pages with a large font. Plenty of pictures of Al-Solaylee and his family (especially those of him as an adorable toddler) are placed throughout the book. When one has so many siblings--ten of them--it was helpful to have photos to identify who's who. Intolerable was a can't-put-down read because of Al-Solaylee's wide-open writing style, where he often comes across as writing a hip queer psychiatric confession.    



Monday, October 22, 2012

At the Edge of All Things: In Search of Labrador



At the Edge of All Things: In Search of Labrador by Rick Hornung tells the story of First Nations smugglers in northern Labrador. The format of the story resembles a novel, and the abundant dialogue only emphasizes this perception. The storyline is introduced in the prologue, when the central character, Martin Rouleau, tells it to the author after the latter hires Rouleau to take him on a caribou hunt in northern Labrador. In between the tale of travelling to the Labrador peninsula, shooting, drawing and quartering caribou in the prologue and epilogue, Hornung writes about Rouleau's adventures snowmobiling and smuggling to and from remote Labrador native communities. 
 
Rouleau has a team who pilots the goods in, stores and distributes the contraband, which is mainly cigarettes and alcohol. He has colleagues who score drug deals for him in Montreal and who bring in more money so that he can buy more contraband. The focus of At the Edge of All Things is Rouleau's search for the gang who torched his remote cabin--while he and his girlfriend, also a smuggler, were still asleep in it. While continuing to bring in booze and drugs to the native communities, Rouleau devises a plan to seek revenge on those who destroyed his cabin and all of its stored contraband.
 
Rouleau shares his own personal history of growing up half Montagnais and half Naskapi in Labrador, at a time when the peninsula was being carved up by mining companies, native groups and the new province of Newfoundland. Multiple new place names are dropped on every page and the map that is featured on the inside cover is regrettably too small and too general to chart most of them. Unfortunately I could not follow Rouleau's smuggling journey across the province, however his final journey, in search of the arsonists, is mapped out.
 
Hornung describes wintry Labrador with the eyes of a true explorer, and every colour of every rock, each snag in the trail and every snowmobile switchback is painted with precision. The exposed granite and ore are streaked with rainbow hues that change colour as the sun rises and sets, and one can feel one's own fingertips freeze when Rouleau must set up his outdoor tent and tie the stakes together.
 
The detail does get tiring however when the reader stumbles across, yet again, another reference to an "L-shaped depression" or an "L-shaped jag". Labrador must have been created by God wielding an enormous cookie-cutter shaped like an L. Hornung also uses the verb "zigzag" and "zigzagging" far too often; it is not hard at all to open the book to any page at random and find these words popping out at you.
 

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Universe in a Single Atom by The Dalai Lama XIV


In this book, the Dalai Lama expresses a strong interest in bringing spiritual concepts into the realm of modernity, and is clearly aimed at the general reader with no Buddhist background.  There is a little bit of biographical information about his growing up in exile, where he developed a fascination with the mechanics of technological objects, and science in general.  Throughout the course of his studies, he began to see connections between his two interests of science and Buddhism.  

The book is a good comparison of selected scientific concepts and Buddhist thought, outlining where they share similarities and differences, and how the two disciplines can enhance each other.  Each chapter outlines a scientific concept, then the Dalai Lama takes us through the Buddhist thought that can compared or contrasted with it.

This book had been chosen by our in-library nonfiction book club, as they had an ongoing interest in spirituality and how it fits into modern life.  They came from a variety of backgrounds, and all found the book fairly interesting.  Seeing how Buddhist thought can be linked and compared to certain scientific principles allows the reader to consider their own thoughts and traditions, and develop their own ideas of how science should fit into human life.

The frequent references to Buddhist thinkers and disciplines can be a little bewildering to those unfamiliar with these figures/concepts.  I particularly enjoyed listening to this book on audio CD, as read by actor Richard Gere.

Discussion Questions:


  1. What point(s) do you think the Dalai Lama is trying to make with this book?
  2. What can Science learn from spiritual disciplines (and vice versa)?
  3. Should science be “constrained” by ethical or political ideas?
  4. How important is the subjective world (i.e. feelings, emotions, thoughts and all their attendant spiritual aspirations) to human life?
  5. The Buddhist traditions speak of the theory of Emptiness – everything is connected – nothing has an independent existence.  Do you agree with this idea?
  6. The Dalai Lama asks this question: “What is the relationship between the cosmos and the beings that have evolved within it?”  How important is this question to you? 
  7. How compatible is science with the Buddhist goal of alleviating suffering and the quest for happiness?
  8. To what extent does science consider the role of altruism and compassion in the way nature functions?
  9. Does science pay enough attention to sentience? – ethics, spirituality, overcoming suffering etc.
  10. Does meditation have value outside the Buddhist tradition?  Can we learn about ourselves using meditative techniques as the Dalai Lama suggests?
  11. One of his final questions is – “what should we do with our new knowledge?” 


Monday, October 15, 2012

Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealed


Pitcairn Island, an island that has fascinated me for decades, more so for its isolation and minuscule size and population than its history as the destination of the Bounty mutineers, made international headlines in 2004 when seven of its men went on trial for sexual assault, rape and gross indecency. Decades of silence were lifted when two teenaged girls revealed their stories to a visiting policewoman. Police descended on Pitcairn in 2000 and uncovered a history of sexual assault against children that had been going on for generations, and perhaps from even the earliest days of the island's settlement by the mutineers. How could these crimes, the worst crimes imaginable against children, have been allowed to continue on this "paradise island"? In such a small society, how could the parents of the victims not know about it?
 
Kathy Marks was one of only six journalists allowed on Pitcairn to cover the sexual abuse trials. Lost Paradise: From Mutiny on the Bounty to a Modern-Day Legacy of Sexual Mayhem, the Dark Secrets of Pitcairn Island Revealed is her account of the court cases and their aftermath on such a small society. Marks also tries to understand how such abuse could have persisted decade after decade, without anyone doing anything about it.
 
Pitcairn is a closed society, remote and practically inaccessible. Its population of less than fifty has survived for over two hundred years with only infrequent contact with the outside world. Thus when police and media arrived to interview the women and question the men, they were met with a wall of resistance. Outsiders were stepping onto their island and threatening them with who knows what. Many islanders believed the entire sexual abuse scandal was a concoction by the British government in an attempt to "shut down" the island. To close the colony by resettling the islanders would save the government millions. If the seven convicted men were sent to jail and with more men under suspicion, the lack of men as fit and able workers would decimate the island. Thus the Pitcairners genuinely feared that they would lose their families, their friends and the island they knew as home.   
 
When the sexual abuse allegations were first made, the island was cloaked in denial. Marks writes about a meeting between the journalists and the Pitcairn matriarchs shortly after she arrived on the island:
 
"We had been summoned to Big Fence, it turned out, to be told that their menfolk were not perverts or hardened criminals: They were decent, hard-working family types. No islander would tolerate children being interfered with, and no one on Pitcairn had ever been raped. The victims were girls who had known exactly what they were doing. It was they who had thrown themselves at the men."
 
and:
 
"The talkative ones explained that underage sex was the norm on Pitcairn. Darralyn Griffiths, the daughter of Jay Warren, one of the defendants, told us in a matter-of-fact way that she had lost her virginity at thirteen, 'and I felt shit hot about it, too, I felt like a big lady.' She was partly boasting, partly censorious of her younger self, it seemed to me. Others clamored to make similar admissions. 'I had it at twelve, and I was shit hot, too,' said Jay's sister, Meralda, a woman in her forties. Darralyn's mother, Carol, fifty-four years old, agreed that thirteen was 'the normal age,' adding, 'I used to be a wild thing when I was young and single.' Olive Christian described her youth, with evident nostalgia, as a time when 'we all thought sex was like food on the table.'"
 
The police and the journalists soon discovered that more than just two teenaged girls had been raped. They uncovered a web of abuse spread across the entire island. Over the course of several years, investigators interviewed every single woman who lived on Pitcairn going back forty years, even women who no longer lived on the island. Most of them had stories like Catherine's:
 
"Catherine gave detectives a lengthy statement, listing a number of Pitcairn men who she said had assaulted her during her childhood. She added that this was 'a common thing on Pitcairn,' remarking, 'You won't get a girl reaching the age of twelve that's still a virgin.' Although the islanders all knew it went on, she said, it was seen as 'part of life,' and no one complained about it."
 
Marks, like me and I am sure most readers, was incredulous that no one, not even the girls' parents, was aware of what was happening to their own daughters. Surely if your daughter of twelve--or, tragically, often younger--was raped, you'd know about it. Lost Paradise tells another story, where girls didn't speak out or if they did, their parents didn't do anything about it. In a community with a population of less than fifty, the rapists were men everyone knew (or were even related to). Confronting a rapist would mean rocking the boat of this tiny insulated community, and no one wanted to disturb the peace.
 
Lost Paradise was full of stories from women who lived the first fifteen years of their lives in fear, afraid of being jumped and raped or being violated as they slept. When you live in one of the most isolated communities on the planet, with only a fellow islander as a police officer who is more an officer in name than in actual practice, you soon realize that there is nowhere to run and no one to turn to. Victims were too scared to tell anyone, even their parents. Since fifteen-year-olds traditionally left the island to pursue secondary education in New Zealand, the only hope of relief was the arrival of one's fifteenth birthday. 
 
While the sexual abuse continued and was accepted among the adult population as a Pitcairn way of life, outsiders living on the island were less inclined to see it as normal behaviour. However, they too were affected by the sensitive need to keep the Pitcairn community together and to keep their little secret strictly to themselves:
 
"While Tosen [the Seventh-day Adventist pastor on the island] had long had his suspicions, he was appalled to find out the scale of the alleged abuse. Above all, he was at a loss to comprehend how the older women, the mothers and grandmothers, could have allowed it to happen. It seemed obvious to him that they must have known. He and Rhonda spoke to the matriarchs. 'We said to them, "Where were you when this was going on? You're the elders of the island, surely you must be unhappy?" And they replied that nothing had changed. One of the grandmothers said, "We all went through it, it's part of life on Pitcairn." She said she couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.'"
 
No one ever had any proof that these sexual assaults were occurring because no one was talking about it. I however still find it hard to believe that a resident pastor, one who had suspicions that sexual abuse was going on, would not alert the authorities in New Zealand. The island's teacher in the late sixties, Albert Reeves, was an outsider and he too should have noticed any changes in behaviour or academic performance of the girls in his class. However, when the teacher himself was charged with rape, you can see why not even outsiders could be looked upon to offer any help to the victims. Marks writes:
 
"The abuse was hidden, but it was not invisible."
 
And no one did anything about it until the revelations from a fifteen-year-old girl opened a can of worms two centuries in the making.
 
If one couldn't even count on one's own parents for support after making these revelations, the teens who told their stories were soon ostracized by their community. Parents valued community unity over justice for their daughters:
 
"However, as Catherine's and Gillian's experiences demonstrate, the main reason that complainants dropped out was pressure: from their relatives and from the Pitcairn community, that uniquely small, close-knit collection of families, as interlaced as a wisteria vine, and just as strangulating. Pressure had been applied since 2000, when the gravity of their predicament had started to dawn on the islanders. As the investigation gathered pace, they looked around for scapegoats, and rather than blame the men, they blamed the women for speaking out. The unforgiveable crime, in the Pitcairners' eyes, was not sexually assaulting children, but betraying the island.
"The men were not shunned, not even by parents living side by side with their daughters' alleged rapists. No outraged mobs surrounded their houses; there were no fights, nor even harsh words traded. The vitriol was reserved for the victims who had broken the Pitcairn code of silence."
 
The tightest bond was that among the small Pitcairn community. It was unbreakable. It ranked above all other allegiances, and anyone who threatened to break down this community--by perhaps sending its men to jail--did so alone, at her own peril: 
 
"Not only are open confrontations avoided, but the pressure to conform to communal norms is intense. And those norms have to be accepted even if they become warped: Anyone who challenges the 'Pitcairn way' risks being made an outcast. A former teacher says, 'The Pitcairners can be incredibly mean and vindictive. If the community turns against you, it is absolute hell.'
"Like a family that is determined to stay together, the islanders have to take whatever communal life throws at them. They have to be able to accommodate any kind of behavior, and that includes their children being abused.
"The interdependence of the community is the key to understanding why generations of parents failed to keep their children safe, and why older women, including those who were victims themselves, insist on defending the men."

Bringing justice to the women of Pitcairn Island meant repopulating the island twofold, with lawyers, judges, media, police and technicians. A new jail was constructed (just in case it was needed) by the only men fit enough to build it--those who were on trial. Since there was so little accommodation on the island for all the outsiders, the defence lawyers slept in the new jail cells. Marks takes you through each trial and verdict. She describes what life was like on Pitcairn after six of its seven men were given extremely lenient sentences. In no other jurisdiction would a man convicted of multiple rapes be given two or three years behind bars. That the sentences were served on Pitcairn, with the only other prisoners one's own neighbours, made it seem to some of the victims that the men were spending their time at the Pacific Hilton. Some felt that the men should have been transferred to a "real prison" in New Zealand so that they might experience terror and fear, and know what their victims are still living with.

 
Have two hundred years of sexual abuse against girls finally come to an end? Marks wonders. With diplomatic officials and an outside police presence finally resident on Pitcairn, one might be inclined to think so. The public awareness of sexual abuse, as well as the jail sentences handed down to those who were guilty, might be big enough deterrents. However it might not be possible to change Pitcairn men's attitudes by merely a short jail sentence:

"Pitcairn was 'a society where the majority of adult males felt they were untouchable,' says Max Davidson [a police officer on the island]. It was a sexual predators' paradise, and when that paradise crumbled, the men blamed their misfortune on the girls. Brian Young, who had sex with a fourteen-year-old when in his early thirties, protested that 'she was very convincing...I was just like a dog being towed behind.'
"As well as the girls, the men blamed the police. They blamed the British government. They blamed Tom and Betty Christian. And when their lawyers failed to get them acquitted, or to sway the Privy Council, they blamed them, too."

They blamed everyone but themselves. I fear that the sexual abuse of girls on Pitcairn might not be over yet.
 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects


The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore is a now classic work from 1967. I have been interested in McLuhan since the mid 1980's, when I was a student at the University of Toronto. What kind of a fan of the Beatles and sixties culture would I be if I didn't share an interest in McLuhan and his visionary media observations? At the time of its initial publication, The Medium is the Massage must have seemed far out. The book is a mishmash of text and visuals, some pages full of words and some with next to nothing. You could turn twenty pages in two minutes or spend twenty minutes on two pages. The reading experience felt like watching a TV show, with the main show occupying the most time followed by brief spurts that were like commercials.
 
Forty-five years later, I can see how the book's format and the message within presaged the effects of worldwide media and the publishing industry:
    
"The Medium is the Massage" reveals how the medium, or process, of our time--electric technology--is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of your personal life. How it is forcing you to reconsider and re-evaluate practically every thought and every institution you formerly took for granted."
 
The book's appearance, that of mixing visuals and text, reminded me of later novels such as Douglas Coupland's Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture and Dennis Rodman's memoirs Bad As I Wanna Be and Walk on the Wild Side, all of which were written for readers with ever declining attention spans.
 
After Arab Spring, I could only read the following remark with mouth agape:
 
"Youth instinctively understands the present environment--the electric drama. It lives mythically and in depth. This is the reason for the great alienation between generations. Wars, revolutions, civil uprisings are interfaces within the new environments created by electric informational media."
 
Twitter and Facebook are these new environments which affect us all, even those like myself who adamantly remain selectively disconnected. I couldn't come to this conclusion fast enough, for McLuhan stated later:
 
"The instantaneous world of electric informational media involves all of us, all at once. No detachment or frame is possible."
 
Technological advances scare some of us, and I count myself among the scaredy-cats. My reaction to dealing with the future? McLuhan must be reading my mind:
"The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future. Suburbia lives imaginatively in Bonanza-land."
 
For an introduction into McLuhan's media studies, The Medium is the Massage is 160 pages of wondrous futurisms. Some of the text seems rather Joycean in structure; I would read passages over and over and the only reason I did not finish this book in one day was that I dwelt on this complex and ungrammatical phraseology. The global village had certainly come to town and McLuhan was its first mayor. 
 


Monday, October 1, 2012

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty



Without question the longest book about North Korea is Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin. At 876 pages, this book covers north Korean history from 1910, when the entire Korean peninsula was occupied by the Japanese, to the founding of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, through to the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War to the year of publication, 2005. I find military history to be a s-l-o-w read and, although interesting, nonetheless it took me a week to get through the first hundred pages. The pages of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader are jam-packed with text written in a small font. Narrow top and side margins give the pages a telephone-book appearance. After spending seven days on the first hundred pages alone I wondered if I would have time to finish the book before my upcoming trip to the DPRK. I worried that I would have to leave it at home, unfinished. Fortunately the book picks up and once the liberators free Korea from the Japanese, it is a rapid read.

Martin populates each page with a superabundance of notes. In total there are 136 pages of endnotes, which made for a worse reading experience than North Korea: Another Country, since I had to flip a brick's worth of pages each time I encountered one of those superscripts. The majority of the endnotes apply to the first quarter of the book, requiring the reader to flip a sizable chunk of book back and forth constantly. Thus the notes hindered the continuity of the reading experience since I had to (or rather, chose to) flip to the end each time to see what further detail Martin was explaining. Fortunately the endnotes section was edited excellently such that each page was headed with note references by page number, not by chapter, so it was always easy to find the correct endnote page. The notes themselves were printed in an even more microscopic typeface than the main text, rivalling some British Penguin imprints' microscopic fonts. Some reviewers of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader have stated that the endnotes were more interesting than the main text. I agree that they were a highly informative enhancement to the main story. 

While discussing the childhood of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il early in the book, the author confuses the terms "stepbrother" with "half-brother". The Great Leader Kim Il Sung had children with another woman (or even multiple women) in addition to the woman who gave birth to the Dear Leader. Any male child born of these liaisons of his father's make them Kim Jong Il's half-brothers, not stepbrothers. That these women themselves had children by men other than Kim Il Sung made the designations "stepbrother" and "half-brother" vital to knowing who was who. It did not help matters much in that almost everyone involved had the surname Kim either. There was a lot of fooling around in the dynastic Kim household as the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jong Il, had multiple children by three wives. The last chapter of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is devoted to speculation as to who would succeed Kim Jong Il. This question was answered in 2010 when the DPRK announced that it would be his younger son, Kim Jong Un, by his third wife. The Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has since taken over as the Great Successor following the death of his father the Dear Leader Comrade General Kim Jong Il in December 2011.

In the mid-1980's the North Korean economy was failing and the regime sought other means to raise capital. While meeting with a Chinese official, the Great Leader had this exchange in a recorded conversation:

"...Hu had asked him [Kim Il Sung]: 'Why aren't you doing the tourism industry? The tourism industry brings in a lot of money.' Kim acknowledged the rationality of the argument, although in the same breath he expressed ambivalence about the issue: 'I understand, so we will do the tourism industry now. We will start now. But it wasn't because we didn't want to do it--of course we didn't want to do it--but now I've decided to do it.'
"Kim agonized over the opening of his country that would be necessary if he should go after tourist dollars. Speaking to Hu Yaobang, he said, he had worried aloud that North Korea was so small, with so much of its territory fortified, that it would be difficult to show off tourist sites without giving enemies a clear view of its defenses. 'In your case,' he said he had told Hu, 'since you have a vast continent you can do whatever you want. In our case the border and the shoreline aren't very long, and are tightly fortified. If this is opened to tourism, how would it be different from withdrawal of troops? If everyone comes and looks over everything, if everything is opened up--ha ha! And if Pyongyang is opened up in the end it will be the same as calling back the forces from along the border."

Martin relies on interviews with over fifty North Korean defectors for much of his inside information. He is cautious about accepting their testimony at face value and explains his sensitive predicament. When North Koreans defect, they must go through a lengthy debriefing session so that South Korea can be assured that the defectors are not actually spies from the North. What the western world may not know is that the South uses defector testimony as much for their own propaganda and it is not uncommon for the defectors to feel compelled by the Southern authorities to exaggerate their situations when talking to reporters, who in turn will carry the South's propaganda to the outside world. The most senior member of the Kims' inside circle to defect was the Party Secretary for Ideology, Hwang Jang Yop. Hwang's testimony is fascinating, and Martin quotes extensively from Hwang's three-volume The Problems of Human Rights in North Korea, the text of which can easily be found on-line.

To illustrate the extent to which the DPRK operated as a paranoid state, defector Oh Young Nam confessed:

"The intelligence network is very well kept. Sometimes sons would report on fathers. I never really trusted my wife, because I've seen too many cases where wives reported on husbands. Thus there is no open opposition."

and during Martin's first trip to North Korea, he tells about his experiences trying to take photographs:

"I told Kim Ji-il the story of how, on my first trip to North Korea, in 1979, my interpreter grabbed my camera to keep me from photographing children running around on a schoolyard. The photographer's argument was that such photos would not convey the unity, the single-mindedness, of the North Korean people. 'That's what the people at the top want foreigners to see: unity,' Kim commented. 'But as I say, all that idolatry you saw in the schools is habitual behavior. When no one was watching, we would just go wild like any kids around the world."

As the North's economy continued to plummet throughout the 1990's, the government decided to establish free economic zones which, while running counter to socialist principles, would be "segregate[d]...so tightly they would have no effect on people and institutions elsewhere in the country". This last-ditch effort to raise desperately-needed hard currency failed. No wonder:

"To prospective foreign investors, officials audaciously pointed out the discreet charms of totalitarianism--social stability not least among them...
"Still, most outsiders reacted warily. They were put off not only by the unlikely strategy of development without real change but also by Pyongyang's general profile--from its record of debt default to its reputation for aggression to doubts about political stability once Kim Il-sung should pass from the scene. Particularly unexcited were Japanese, who had the resources, the proximity and the history of interest in the Korean peninsula to become a major factor if they should wish to do so. North Korea still had not paid its debts despite repeated reschedulings. Japan had heard offers to repay its portion in fish and in gold, but nothing ever had come of those, either."

In The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, Kang tells of his time spent in a concentration camp. Kang, at the age of nine, was sent with his family to pay for the alleged sins of his grandfather. In North Korean society, if one family member committed an offence, three generations of a family were believed to be "contaminated" and everyone, including children, were sent to specific camps. Antigovernment criminality was believed to bleed through generations and no one really could feel secure even in his own home. This bred a chilling fear among the populace since one could be uprooted at any time if the authorities so much as found out about a "crime" committed by a relative even decades ago. Temptation to stray from the official party line or to commit even the slightest of misdemeanours might have the horrific consequence of a lifetime in a labour camp for an entire family. This draconian policy was established to make everyone behave and to ensure that one kept one's opinions to oneself.

Martin interviewed Ahn Myong Chol, a former prison guard who told him about one of the prisoners he befriended:

"We [Martin and Ahn] talked and I realized he [the prisoner] had been sent to prison because of his father's offenses. Kim Chang-bong, who was head of the KPA [Korean People's Army] in the 1970s, was ousted by Kim Jong-il and sent with his family to camp. Others under him were also sent to prison camps with their families. This man's father probably worked under Kim Chang-bong."   

It strikes me, still, as unbelievable, that children, not to mention even grandchildren, have paid with their lives for the alleged sins of their (grand-)parents. What kind of regime inflicts punishments intergenerationally? Ahn states:

"They propagandize that North Korea is a very peaceful society, but they say in all the orders to prison guards to be very aggressive, make sure you get rid of three generations of prisoners, root them out of society."

Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader offers a thorough and painstakingly well-researched account of life in North Korea from an unbiased American point of view. Unlike North Korea: Another Country, where author Bruce Cumings comes across as an American mouthpiece for the Kim regime, Bradley K. Martin remains objective, and is not afraid to point the finger at the US on occasions when it has done more harm than good in its relationship with North--even South--Korea. The superpower occupiers of the Korean peninsula are anything but a clear case of good guys versus bad guys. Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader is packed with information which is backed up with quotes and testimony from first-hand witnesses. Since Martin himself has visited the DPRK on multiple occasions, he can talk with authority about a country that is all too often painted by western media in a kaleidoscopic mishmash of invisible ink.