The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

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Subtitled Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, The Lonely City is a fascinating hybrid of memoir, philosophy and biography in which Laing explores New York city by way of art in an attempt to understand her state of loneliness.

When in her mid-thirties Laing finds herself alone in New York (having moved for a relationship that failed), she falls into a deep loneliness, the kind that can happen in a big city. She manages to explore this state with curiousity, observing her behaviour in a non-judgmental fashion.

It was the sensation of need that frightened me the most, as if I had lifted the lid on an unappeasable abyss. I stopped eating very much and my hair fell out and lay noticeably on the floor, adding to my disquiet … I was keeling towards the midpoint of my thirties, an age at which female aloneness is no longer socially sanctioned and carries with it a persistent whiff of strangeness, deviance and failure.

As someone who has has experienced loneliness post-divorce and when my children left home (sometimes hit sideways by it, left breathless, puzzled as to how I can feel so lonely in my home town), I found Laing’s descriptions of this state to be exquisite in their accuracy:

What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming … It hurts, in the way that feelings do …

My life felt empty and unreal, and I was embarrassed by its thinness, the way one might be embarrassed about wearing a stained or threadbare piece of clothing. I felt like I was in danger of vanishing.

Stuck in an apartment in which she can’t close the blinds, watching other people live out their lives in front of her, but aware that they can also look in and watch her, Laing is reminded of Edward Hopper’s painting, particularly one:

I knew what I looked like. I looked like a woman in a Hopper painting. The girl in ‘Automat’ maybe …

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Automat by Edward Hopper

As a way of  trying to understanding her loneliness and seeking solace in the experiences of others, Laing explores the lives and works of four artists: Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol, Henry Darger and David Wojnarowicz. All of these artists were lonely or reclusive, had no intimate relationships or had intimacy issues, and all lived in the  city that didn’t care whether you lived or died. She writes about their lives with the accuracy of a biographer, always in light of loneliness and solitude; she describes and interprets their work as an art lover.

When I read the book, I had to have my phone or laptop nearby to google the works of art; I was only familiar with a few of them. I didn’t know much about any of these artists – a little about Andy Warhol – and was struck by how tragic their lives were, by how violent and disturbing some of the art is, and by the cruelty humans can inflict on each other and on themselves.

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Self Portrait with Collage by David Wojnarowicz

In the course of describing the artists’ works and lives, Laing introduces a range of other personalities, such as Klaus Nomi, Greta Garbo, Diane Arbus and Zoe Leonard among others. As a result, she covers a wide range of topics, including AIDS, music,  the role of cities in providing space for the lonely and the homeless, and the disadvantages of gentrification. She also researches loneliness as a subject on its own, drawing on authors such as Virginia Woolf and the psychologist Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, the first pioneer into the study of loneliness, who said of it:

Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.

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By Henry Darger

In her explorations on the subject, Laing considers the role of technology in our lives, looking at its dual function – offering relief to the lonely by giving them a private bubble in which to sit when in public, while allowing to them interact with others when  alone. She writes about Josh Harris, one of the early pioneers of the internet in the late 1990s:

… Harris predicted the internet’s social function, and that he did so in part by intuiting the power of loneliness as a driving force. He understood the strength of people’s longing for contact and attention and he also grasped the counterweight of their fear of intimacy, their need for screens of every kind. 

Laing’s exploration into these four artists, and other individuals, did not cure her loneliness per se, however she acknowledges that (when referring to a photographic portrait of Warhol):

… like Wojnarowicz’s diaries and Klaus Nomi’s voice, that painting of Warhol was one of the things that most medicated my own feelings of loneliness, giving me a sense of the potential beauty present in a frank declaration that one is human and as such subject to need.

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Olivia Laing

She concludes the book with the thought that she doesn’t necessarily think the answer to loneliness is to meet someone:

I think it’s about two things: learning how to befriend yourself and understanding that many of the things that seems to afflict us as individuals are in fact a result of larger forces of stigma and exclusion, which can and should be resisted.

The Lonely City is such a wide-ranging book that I cannot begin adequately to cover all the topics here, and it is one that deserves a second read as it is richly detailed. In the way she applies herself so intelligently, philosophically and personally to an array of subjects, Laing reminds me of another of my favourite authors, Rebecca Solnit. Perhaps more than with other books however,  I related on a personal level to the basic tenet of The Lonely City – the state of loneliness and its implications for oneself and society – and I was in all other ways was fascinated, stimulated and deeply moved.

 

The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton

This novel is one of my best reads of 2018, and certainly one of the most powerful. Winton’s writing is so visceral that I experienced this book with all my senses; feeling, seeing and hearing it as much as reading it. Three months after finishing it, I still get glimpses in my mind of the stark setting and the fiercely vulnerable protagonist, Jaxie Clacton.

Shepherd's hut

Despite generally disliking books written in the vernacular, I always read Winton with appreciation as he is one of the few authors who nails it. Jaxie is a deeply wounded Australian teenager who refers to his abusive father as ‘Captain Wankbag’ and describes him as the ‘deadest cunt’; who tells us that houses in the desolate landscape through which he traverses are as ‘rare as rocking horse turds’. At the same time, however, Winton has created a character who is also poetic and lyrical in his use of language, reflecting an inner sensitivity.

At the start of the novel, Jaxie avoids being at home with his father who has taken to beating him up instead of his mother, who recently died of cancer. The townsfolk know about this abuse but turn a blind eye, so when Jaxie’s father is killed in a freak accident at home, Jaxie realises he has to flee to avoid being accused of murder.

He decides to go to the one other person who understands him –  his cousin – but to get there he has to travel across the vast Western Australian wheat belt. On an isolated journey evocative of Patrick White’s Voss and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,  Jaxie struggles to survive in the waterless, barren environment. He kills kangaroos for food, leaving their bloody butchered bodies hanging from trees; he fantasises about fresh water as his tongue curls up with thirst; he is gutted when he realises that a shimmering lake is merely a mirage on the inhospitable salt pans. Winton’s sense of setting is masterful – the brutal heat and dryness, the persistent flies, the dust, the sticky blood; I could feel it, see it.

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Photo: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/27/the-shepherds-hut-tim-winton-review

So when Jaxie hears someone singing in the scrub around the salt flats, he is forced to approach for help or face death. He sees  ‘just an old fella. Mostly bald. Walking dainty like his feet’s tender.’ Fintan McGillas is a disgraced Irish Catholic priest who has withdrawn from society and lives alone in an old shepherd’s hut, brought supplies every couple of months by the church. Fintan is desperately in need of company, and Jaxie in need of water, so he takes up Fintan’s offer to come into the hut and begrudgingly accepts being fed, bathed and clothed by him. Jaxie stays, despite his suspicion of the defrocked priest – we don’t find out what Fintan’s sin was, though he says to Jaxie:  ‘I am no pedo’ . Because of their differing needs, the two are forced into a wary relationship, in which trust is slowly built and an unusual friendship grows.

They might be isolated but humanity still encroaches on them in the end, and the book finishes with Jaxie still in motion, still having to move on to escape a situation, however not the one that I initially envisaged.

Winton has written a book here that operates on many levels with different themes emerging – masculinity and anger, faith and salvation, insecurity and determination, and the allegorical journey of self-discovery. It is at once a novel of beauty and brutality, and one that I found impossible to put down.

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Tim Winton is refreshingly outspoken about the role of masculinity in today’s society, and what has gone wrong with it. In an interview in The Guardian newspaper, he says:

Boys and young men are so routinely expected to betray their better natures, to smother their consciences, to renounce the best of themselves and submit to something low and mean. As if there’s only one way of being a bloke, one valid interpretation of the part, the role, if you like. There’s a constant pressure to enlist, to pull on the uniform of misogyny and join the Shithead Army that enforces and polices sexism. And it grieves me to say it’s not just men pressing those kids into service.

(https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/09/about-the-boys-tim-winton-on-how-toxic-masculinity-is-shackling-men-to-misogyny)

In this interview, Winton reflects on his upbringing, his views on toxic masculinity, faith, and the creation of Jaxie

 

 

 

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Every part of this book delighted me, even the library check-out card on the inside back cover, so realistic looking that I tried to remove it.

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Orlean focuses the book on the fire that broke out at the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986.  Initially ignored by librarians and patrons when the fire alarm went off, the fire escalated rapidly and tore through the building, burning for seven hours at temperatures reaching 2000 degrees.  Four hundred thousand books were burned to cinders and seven hundred thousand were damaged. Thirty years later, the investigation was still incomplete; perhaps the cause was arson but police were unable to pin the act on the suspect because of insufficient evidence.

Through her explorations, Orlean uncovers the history of the library, from its initial architectural design, its rebuilding after the fire, the restoration of the damaged books, and its librarians over time. She also investigates the story of Harry Peak, the blond-haired actor who was the main suspect in the arson case, interviewing family and friends of his.

Through using the LAPL disaster as the premise to carry the story, Orlean highlights the role that public libraries play in Americans’ lives, even as life now tends to be dominated by digital devices. Not only are books and other media available for lending for free, libraries and librarians play a vital role of providing information and research assistance. Banks of computers are available for use, and the building themselves have become maker-spaces, creating space for activities ranging from board game competitions to language lessons. Orlean points out how libraries are also safe spaces for those who perhaps feel awkward in the world,  for busy people who need a space to relax, for mothers with children needing time out, and as a refuge for the homeless.

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The Los Angeles Public Library

Woven through this, she tells the story of librarians past and present, a wonderful cast of characters ranging from Mary Foy who in 1880 became head of the LAPL at a time when men dominated the job, to Charles Lummis, an eccentric journalist determined to make the LAPL one of the best in the world. She also introduces us to the current librarians, whose jobs are so much more than what we envisage and who ensure that the LAPL remains relevant in today’s society.

Orlean brings in her own love of books as well, with reminisces of visits to the library with her mother when she was young, echoing my memories of such visits:

Our visits to the library were never long enough for me. The place was so bountiful. I loved wandering around the bookshelves, scanning the spines until something happened to catch my eye … After we checked out, I loved being in the car and having all the books we’d gotten stacked on my lap, pressing me under their solid, warm weight … It was such a thrill leaving a place with things you hadn’t paid for, such a thrill anticipating the new books we would read.

It reminded me of how I used to use my siblings’ library cards so that I could take out more than the allotted three we were allowed; the smell of the books, the excitement of finding one that would open a whole new world to me, the heaviness of the books in my library bag.

As an absolute lover of reading, books and of libraries, I savoured every word of The Library Book. Orlean’s extensive research could have produced a dry account of libraries, but she fills the account with compassion, humour and careful insights to make it a fascinating read.

My only regret at the end of this book was when I compared her depiction of American libraries to  the state of South African public libraries – those dedicated to  our libraries try their hardest, but more government funding and support would go a long way in making these vital institutions available to all citizens of the country.

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Rondebosch Library, Cape Town

 

 

Two books about the environment: Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver and Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I’ve read both the above books in the past two weeks and, in their own ways, they both deal with the environment, the nature of humanity, and the effects of poverty on families.

Unsheltered

Unsheltered:

Unsheltered, Kingsolver’s first novel since 2012, focuses on two families living a century apart on the same corner of two streets in Vineland, New Jersey. The present-day family finds itself inexplicably living on the edge of poverty – Willa Knox and her husband have been hard-working professionals who both lost their jobs because of economic cutbacks. They live in a dilapidated, inherited house with Willa’s obnoxious father-in-law and their free-spirited, wayward daughter. When their Ivy League-educated son is hit by a tragedy, he too comes home, unemployed, with a baby in tow.  Together they live in a house that is literally falling down around them, unable to afford the upkeep.

In the alternating story in the 1800s, Thatcher Greenwood is a teacher and scientist, frustrated by not being allowed to teach his pupils about evolution, and irritated by his shallow wife and social-climbing mother-in-law. His next-door-neighbour, Mary Treat (a real life character) is a self-taught botanist and scientist who corresponds with Darwin about her findings, and Thatcher is drawn towards her intelligence and curiousity.  His house both literally and figuratively starts to crack and strain as he further cultivates a friendship with a newspaper reporter who, too, believes in evolution.

Unsheltered is a book that focuses on the human condition, how we are time and time again faced with adversity, and how we yet again respond with resilience. Kingsolver quite obviously points out the political and environmental mess that Trump is creating, though she only refers to him as ‘The Bullhorn’, and she allows Willa’s daughter, Tig, to point out the dangers of climate change and the devastating impact humans are having on the earth.

The above points are what caused me not to be captivated by this novel. I felt that I was being lectured by Kingsolver about the environmental and economic concerns facing humanity; her tone is didactic and some of her characters one-dimensional. I finished it, but with no great satisfaction and disappointment that it did not live up to my expectations.

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Where the Crawdads Sing:

Despite not knowing what a crawdad was (a crayfish), I preferred this slightly clichéd novel, set in coastal marshlands of a quiet seaside town on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where families live hidden within the marshes, considered ‘white trash’ by others. Here Kya Clark is abandoned one by one by family members escaping an abusive, alcoholic father.  When her father also finally walks out when she is still little, she is left to live alone, fending for herself. Known as the ‘Marsh Girl’, she is mocked by the townsfolk for being ignorant and dirty – she only lasted one day at school and after that always evaded the truant officers.  When one of the town heroes is found dead in the marshes, Kya is conveniently accused of murder and detained.

Despite her reputation as the ignorant ‘Marsh Girl’, Kya is an intelligent young woman who spends her days in the marshes observing and understanding the flora and fauna of this unique environment. Her skill in this area finally lead her to being a published expert on the marshes, a fact unknown by the town residents. Kya is portrayed by Owens as a beautiful, long-legged, sexually-innocent teenager who attracts the attention of two very different young men, both of whom break her heart. Despite my irritation at these hackneyed characterisations, I still enjoyed the book as I was drawn to Owens’ detailed descriptions of the briney marsh lands, and the plants and birds within it.

All in all, I found it a more satisfying read than Unsheltered, which at one stage I considered abandoning (only my allegiance to Kingsolver kept me going), while I read Owen’s book in two days.

(As an aside and perhaps of interest to South African readers, Owens is the co-author of The Cry of the Kalahari, which depicts her and Mark Owens’ time living in the Kalahari Desert in the 1970s, a book I remember reading and enjoying.)

 

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

There is a shout on the cover of this book by Junot Diaz: “One of those books that makes you happy for literature.”  It is true: The Dog Stars made me happy that I am a reader; I felt a bit empty when it finished and I will go back to re-read one day.

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This is a post-apocalyptic tale, set in an America where everyone bar a few people has died of a flu pandemic. Hig has survived, his wife is dead, and he lives in a small hangar of an abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper. He is not entirely alone, as he has a neighbour, Bangley, a tough fighting man with an arsenal of weapons; not a natural friend for Hig. However,  he and Bangley have each other’s backs and share food from the vegetable garden Hig keeps, and the deer he hunts in the forests around them.

This  book is also about flying, and the enjoyment Hig experiences when  soaring through the air over the abandoned landscape in  a small  1956 Cessna that he calls The Beast.

I am not grief sick nor stiffer in the joints nor ever lonely, nor someone who lives with the nausea of having killed and seems to be destined to kill again. I am the one who is flying over all of it looking down. Nothing can touch me.”

Hig has flying to occupy him, but he misses fly-fishing; he used to fish whenever anything went wrong in his life – “If I ever wake up crying in the middle of a dream, and I’m not saying I did, it’s because the trout are gone every one.”  However, he most of all  misses his wife, Melissa, who was pregnant when she died of the virus.

Hig is not a physical man, not a good fighter and less so a cold-blooded killer, though he has to learn to become one to survive – he and Bangley have constantly to be aware of getting ambushed by gangs of other desperate humans.

Comparisons have been made to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, yet I found this to be a more engaging and hopeful story than The Road; not as bleak, although bleak it still is. Hig is likeable; Heller shows us the depth of his character through the depiction of his physical, mental and spiritual survival. By learning of his vulnerabilities and quirks, I liked spending time with Hig. He talks to Jasper and to himself, and philosophises while remembering life before the virus.

I once had a book on stars but now I don’t. My memory serves but not stellar ha. So I made up the constellations. I made a Bear and a Goat, but maybe not where they were supposed to be … I made one for Melissa, her whole self standing there kind of smiling and tall looking down on me in the winter nights. Looking down while frost crinkles my eyelashes and feathers my beard. I made one for the little Angel. 

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Hig remains haunted by a voice that he heard on the radio waves, seven years after the virus struck. When on a routine flight, he called a traffic tower at one of the airports (a habit he couldn’t kick despite knowing that no-one would be there to man them). This time, though, someone answered – a faint static interrupted by a voice that faded away, someone who by his words had to be a pilot or a controller.

Three years later, never having been able to forget this incident, Hig decides to go out in search of the voice, to see if there is anything more to his existence than the small isolated life he endures. He says his goodbyes to Bangley, and flies into the unknown to meet a fate that is both wonderful and awful.

The book is written in a style that reflects the kind of man Hig is – short conversational sentences, sometimes just fragments. Initially it was a bit jarring and then it became natural. Hig is a philosophical man of tenderness living in a brutal world, who survives through forms of love – memories, flying, friendships, and his relationship with a dog. Don’t be put off by its dystopian setting; The Dog Stars is a beautiful, unusual story that ends on a note of hope.

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Peter Heller

 

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey

This is one of the most enchanting books I have read; a gentle, contemplative book that chronicles Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s year-long relationship with a snail.

Snail

In her 30s, Bailey contracts a debilitating neurological disorder that leaves her bedridden, barely able to sit up, let alone stand. She has to move from her farm house into a studio flat to be closer to help, leaving her dog and her outdoor lifestyle behind. Confined to bed, she experiences a loneliness that chronic illness can bring, when friends are unsure how to be around you, and she starts slipping into a dark place in her mind, experiencing panic attacks and great despondency.

One day a friend brings her a potted field violet on which she has purposefully put a woodland snail for Bailey. She is left bemused, wondering what on earth she is to do with it. Why should she enjoy a snail? How could she look after it when she couldn’t look after herself? She couldn’t even return it to the woods.

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When the snail starts to crawl out of the pot that evening, Bailey thinks she won’t see it again and falls asleep, but when she wakes, she sees it has returned to the same place and that the envelope nearby has a few small squares chewed out of it. Thinking somewhat guiltily that the snail can’t live on paper alone, she puts a few flower petals near it and later, in the silence that fills the room, she hears the snail chewing on them.

The sound was of someone very small munching celery continuously … the tiny intimate sound of the snail’s eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.”

And so the relationship between Bailey and the snail begins. With a new companion, as unlikely as it is, Bailey refocuses her attention from herself to the snail and in this way, her illness becomes more bearable and less lonely. As the snail is nocturnal and Bailey an insomniac, she spends hours observing its behaviour, and the tenderness and skill with which she writes about the snail makes this unusual subject a joy to read about.

“Each evening the snail awoke and with astonishing poise moved gracefully to the rim of the pot and peered over, surveying the strange country that lay ahead. Pondering its circumstance with a regal air, as if from the turret of a castle, it waved its tentacles first this way and then that, as though responding to a distant melody.”

Concerned about the snail’s living space, she buys a terrarium and recreates a woodland world for it to live in; she finds out what sort of food snails eat and feeds it mushrooms and egg shells. She starts reading widely about molluscs to learn more about her unexpected roommate, and the more she discovers about the common snail, the more respect she gains for it. She trawls gastropod literature, from Darwin to poetry to modern-day scientific research, making  this as much a natural history or educational book as it is a memoir.

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“A snail has an interesting life; its courtship is remarkable, its various natural abilities are astounding, it has a memory, and, just like humans, it likes a comfortable place to sleep and very good food.”

It is a relationship of observation; Bailey doesn’t anthropomorphise the snail – she contemplates giving it a name, but in the end decides ‘snail’ is the best moniker. She doesn’t touch or stroke the snail or make demands of it; she watches it and learns. In this way, I also learned. Who knew that most snails are hermaphrodites, and that snails have a mating courtship? Who knew that after fertilisation, they can hold off having babies for months? Bailey didn’t   – until her snail unexpectedly lays eggs and her room turns into a snail crèche, hosting 118 baby snails at once stage.

Having had a chronic fatigue illness similar to, though not as severe as, Bailey’s, and being able to relate to the profound loneliness of an often-misunderstood condition, I found her experience almost unbearably touching, and admired her ability not to slide into self-pity at any stage, and to stay in the beauty of the moment.

This is a short book, but a physically beautiful one with small line drawings of snails trawling through its pages. Its quiet meditative tone makes it a soothing read, and left me feeling that something good still exists in the world when humans and nature can connect in this tender, trusting way.

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Visit Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s website at http://www.elisabethtovabailey.net

 

 

A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

This is a startling memoir of a man who escaped a life of misery and starvation in North Korea, where he had lived for 36 years under the brutal reign of Kim Il-sung and then his son, Kim Jong-il.

Cover

Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan to a Korean father and Japanese mother. By virtue of being half-Korean, he and his family were treated with disdain and he was bullied at school. His father, perhaps because of the humiliation he suffered in the workplace for being Korean, took his frustration out on his wife and beat her regularly while Ishikawa and his sisters watched, unable to do anything. Despite this, the family lived a comfortable life, Ishikawa began to make friends and enjoyed himself in his own small way.

Life changed, however, when in 1958 the communist North Korean leader, Kim Il-sung, urged all Koreans to come home, promising them a better life in ‘paradise on earth’. Ishikawa’s father, lured by the idea of living a more lucrative life in a society where he would be accepted, packed up the family and returned home to Korea with them.

Here they were sent to a small village where Ishikawa soon learned that communist North Korea was ‘hell on earth’. Having expected excellent education, a better standard of living and abundant food, they soon realised that none of this would ever happen. Kim Il-sung was a ruthless dictator who ran the country as a brutal totalitarian regime. In a cruel turn of fate, as Ishikawa’s family was now considered Japanese, they were treated with contempt as the lowest caste in North Korea. The only positive in the move was that Ishikawa’s father stopped beating his mother and became a gentler person towards all of them.

Ishikawa tells the details of his life in North Korea in a straight-forward, honest, and not overly-dramatic manner, and in this way makes the narrative an excellent tool to carry such an horrific story. The translation from Japanese is well done and his voice stays authentic. It is impossible to relate in total here the brutality of his family’s existence, which seems to worsen with every chapter. His family was initially given a house but, because they were Japanese, it was burned down and they had to fashion a makeshift shack out of spare wood. His family lived in complete squalor (like the majority of the population) with no heating, no new clothes, and hardly any food – the government was supposed to supply food parcels but only did so sporadically; or any food that was successfully farmed was taken away. Ishikawa’s father found it difficult to find work and so their income was virtually non-existent. His mother foraged the land every day for something to eat and they often managed to stay alive by eating  boiled bark and weeds.

The tragic ludicrousness of the North Korean regime is often highlighted by Ishikawa, one of the examples being the farming methods forced upon farmers. They were instructed to plant the rice seedlings as close together as possible, in order to produce large quantities of rice. However, the plants were unable to flourish because of being squashed together, and crop after crop failed, only adding to the dire food shortages.

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An official portrait of Kim Il-sung

Ishikawa never bought into the propaganda with which so many citizens were brainwashed, however he went along with it, for to cross it was to lose one’s life or be sent to a concentration camp.

“When you find yourself caught in a crazy system dreamed up by dangerous lunatics, you just do what you’re told.”

Despite his intelligence, he was never able to get a good job because he was Japanese, and was finally reduced to working in the coal mines; the dirtiest, hardest labour. He married – an arranged marriage – and had children who proved to be a constant source of anguish for him as he was unable to provide a good life for them.

When Kim Il-sung died, his son Kim-Jong il took over and, although it seemed not possible, life became even worse for North Koreans. Ishikawa’s family – and others – literally started starving to death:

“Ever since setting foot in North Korea more than thirty years before, I’d known nothing but hunger. Everyone had been halfway to starvation for decades. But things had taken a turn for the worse starting in 1991. From 1991 until Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, extremely cold weather wreaked havoc on the fragile food supply.”

People became walking skeletons, Ishikawa’s family included, and he watched his children become weaker and thinner, and then his mother die of hunger, her exhausted body unable to keep working.

After 36 years of this hell on earth, Ishikawa decided he had to escape to Japan and then try to get his family out of North Korea. He knew that the only alternative was death. Despite his weakened state, he eventually left North Korea by swimming over the Yalu River in the dead of night, through a ‘river of darkness’; he was knocked unconsciousness by a rock in the flooding waters and landed up barely alive on the banks on the Chinese side of the river. Once well enough, he contacted the Japanese authorities who negotiated with the Chinese to bring him safely into Japan.

The tragedy of his story is that, once in Japan, Ishikawa hoped to earn enough money to get his family out of North Korea. In an ironic twist, however, he was unable to find substantial enough work as he was now regarded as being North Korean. He never saw his family again.

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Masaji Ishikawa

The book – however horrific the details – is a testament to Ishikawa’s resilience and determination to stay alive with dignity. This needs to be read by Westerners  – in a time where North Korea appears in the news as being ‘normal’ enough to walk into the Winter Olympics with South Korea, this story is a stark reminder of what life really is like in North Korea. Perhaps, too, it serves as a warning of  what a country under a populist leader is in danger of becoming.