Author, Blaine Harden, Book review, Mantle Books, memoir, Non-fiction, North Korea, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Escape from Camp 14’ by Blaine Harden

Escape-from-camp-14

Non-fiction; Kindle edition; Mantle Books; 256 pages; 2012.

A couple of years ago I read Barbara Demick’s award-winning Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea, an extraordinary account of six ordinary citizens living in the world’s most secretive and repressive state.

Blaine Harden’s Escape from Camp 14 shows the other side of the coin: what it is like to live in — and then escape from — one of North Korea’s highly secretive labour camps. Indeed, Shin In Guen (now known as Shin Dong-hyuk) is the only person born in a North Korean labour camp to escape and tell his story.

Life as a slave

Shin was born “a slave and raised behind a high-voltage barbed-wire fence” in a concentration camp that the North Korean government says does not exist. The notorious Camp 14 is located in central North Korea, about 55 miles north of Pyongyang, and is so large — 30 miles long by 15 miles wide — that it has farms, mines and factories. It is home to 15,000 prisoners, most of whom have been sent there without any judicial process…

… and many die there without learning the charges against them. They are taken from their homes, usually at night, by the Bowibu, the National Security Agency. Guilt by association is legal in North Korea. A wrongdoer is often imprisoned with his parents and children. Kim Il Sung laid down the law in 1972: ‘[E]nemies of class, whoever they are, their seed must be eliminated through three generations.’

The book, which is based on interviews with Shin along with a Korean-language memoir he wrote (and had published in South Korean in 2007), is divided into three parts: Shin’s life and upbringing in the camp; his death-defying escape; and his new life in America.

Probably the most eye-opening aspect for any Western reader is realising that these camps exist (the author points out that North Korean labour camps have been around 12 times longer than the Nazi death camps) and that so few people know about them. The living conditions are horrendous — food is in short supply, health care is poor, accommodation is basic, there is no running water or electricity — and everyone is treated less than human and below the law.

The following quote paints a distressing portrait of daily life in the camps:

A few prisoners are publicly executed every year. Others are beaten to death or secretly murdered by guards, who have almost complete license to abuse and rape prisoners. Most prisoners tend crops, mine coal, sew military uniforms, or make cement while subsisting on a near-starvation diet of corn, cabbage and salt. They lose their teeth, their gums turn black, their bones weaken and, as they enter their forties, they hunch over at the waist. Issued a set of clothes once or twice a year, they commonly work and sleep in filthy rags, living without soap, socks, gloves, underclothes, or toilet paper. Twelve- to fifteen-hour workdays are mandatory until prisoners die, usually of malnutrition-related illnesses, before they turn fifty.

Shin was born into this environment and knew no other life — for him it was normal. He spent “twenty-three years in an open-air cage run by men who hanged his mother, shot his brother, crippled his father, murdered pregnant women, beat children to death, taught him to betray his family and tortured him over a fire” before he decided to escape.

A life of freedom

The book comes into its own when the tale of Shin’s escape is explained in heart-hammering detail. Reading it, it is hard not to think that it is all fiction, for surely the story is too surreal to be true. And even when Shin does make it across the border to China, those first few months on the run do not offer the blissful happiness of freedom you might expect — every day is agony, knowing that at any point he could be recaptured by the authorities. In fact, life is like this for almost two years, because that’s how long it takes for Shin to reach the relative safety of South Korea, where defectors benefit from special support networks set up to help North Koreans.

But it is the final part of the book that is perhaps the most heartbreaking, because Shin is so clearly traumatised and psychologically damaged by his upbringing that he struggles to adjust to his new life. Even though he manages to get himself to Southern California, where he becomes a senior ambassador for a human rights group, he has problems trusting people and making friends, does not understand the concepts of love or mercy, and finds it difficult to settle down long enough to stay in a  job or make a home — although there are plenty of support networks there to help him.

And while it probably didn’t help he had a journalist badgering him for this book, Shin’s story is such an important — and unique — one that it really had to be told.

In its matter-of-fact tone, Escape from Camp 14 reveals the full horror of North Korea’s human rights record. It is, by turns, shocking, distressing and scandalous. I read it with a growing sense of anger and outrage but came away from it feeling nothing but empathy and admiration for Shin’s courage and stoicism. This is a compelling and thought-provoking read, but I can’t help but wonder how many other North Koreans will never be quite as fortunate as Shin…

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Malaya, Myrmidon Books, Publisher, Setting, Tan Twan Eng

‘The Garden of Evening Mists’ by Tan Twan Eng

Garden_of_evening_mists

Fiction – paperback; Myrmidon Books; 448 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists has been shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize. It is a beautiful tale set in the central highlands of Malaya about memory, forgetting, war, politics, atonement, redemption, forgiveness, gardening — and the Japanese art of horimono tattoos.

A judge looks back on her life

The story revolves around Teoh Yun Ling, the sole survivor of a secret Japanese slave-labour camp, who takes early retirement from her career as a judge at the Supreme Court in Kuala Lumpur. For the first time in almost 35 years, she returns to Yugiri, in the Cameron Highlands, where the beautiful Japanese garden called “Evening Mists” is located.

Six tall, narrow stones huddled into a miniature limestone mountain range in the centre of the pond. On the opposite bank stood the pavilion, duplicated in the water so that it appeared like a paper lantern hanging in mid-air. A willow grew a few feet away from the pavilion’s side, its branches sipping from the pond.

It was here, during the Malayan Emergency, that she met the garden’s designer, Nakamura Aritomo, and tried to convince him to create another Japanese garden as a tribute to her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo, the exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan, declined, but he agreed to take her on as an apprentice so that she could learn the necessary skills to create the garden herself.

From this narrative thread, other narrative threads begin to spool out, including: Teoh’s time in the slave-labour camp; her years living on the Majuba Tea Estate in the Cameron Highlands (where the threat of murder and kidnap by communist guerrillas put her life in constant danger); and her present situation in which she tries to fob off an historian, Professor Yoshikawa, seeking permission to use Aritomo’s artworks (woodblock prints) — now in her ownership — in a book he is writing to prove his hypothesis that the emperor’s gardener was also a tattoo artist.

These threads are told in a kind of random fashion, because they are revealed in a memoir that Judge Teoh is hurriedly writing before the illness with which she has been diagnosed leaves her unable to read or write. That illness is just one of many pieces of information she withholds from her friends. As the narrative gently unfurls we discover more of these secrets. It is not that she is an unreliable narrator, but that she only tells you what she wants you to know when she wants you to know it.

Surprise and mystery

As a result this is a novel full of surprises.

It is also a novel fully of mystery. I don’t think it’s a plot spoiler to say that midway through the novel Aritoma disappears — and no-one knows what happens to him. If he was enigmatic in life, he is even more enigmatic in death.

There’s also the curious notion of how Judge Teoh managed to escape from a camp that no-one has ever heard of and one that even she cannot locate. And why does the Majuba Tea Estate seem immune to the war raging between the British and the Malayan nationalists — exactly which side is the owner on?

The garden as a focal point

The thing I most loved about The Garden of Evening Mists was the way in which Tan Twan Eng describes the garden and the art of creating it. I admit that I am a sucker for Japanese gardens, having learnt about them at university (as part of my studies in landscape architecture) and he brings to life their beauty, elegance and symbolism in an incredibly visual — and sensual — way.

And Judge Teoh is a wonderful creation; a Straits Chinese woman who hates the Japanese for what they did to her (and her sister) in the camp, but is able to put that aside to work closely with a Japanese man — even though his very presence reminds her of what it was like to be “a prisoner of the Japs”.

Sometimes the narrative falls into a slight lull, but the multi-layered storylines provide sufficient intrigue to maintain the reader’s interest.

Despite the gentleness of the prose, this is a book about extreme violence and cruelty in all its many facets.

But it does not paint things in black and white. This is a book full of light and shade, with the garden as its central focus, for it is the act of building the garden which helps heal the psychological wounds of both Judge Teoh and Aritomo. Later, it becomes a refuge, a place of solace, from the war happening in the hills beyond, and later still, it provides comfort to an ill woman trying to make sense of her extraordinary life.