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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Your Republic is Calling You

Kim Young-ha

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To purchase Your Republic is Calling You

Title: Your Republic is Calling You
Author: Kim Young-ha
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 326 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Your Republic is Calling You - US
Your Republic is Calling You - UK
Your Republic is Calling You - Canada
L'Empire des Lumières - France
Im Reich der Lichter - Deutschland
  • Korean title: 빛의 제국
  • Translated by Chi-Young Kim

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Our Assessment:

B : fairly entertaining look at the diverging two Koreas over the past decades

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 26/2/2009 Jean-Claude Perrier
The Washington Post D 27/9/2010 Maureen Corrigan

  From the Reviews:
  • "L'intrigue se déroule sur une seule journée, qui va voir se déliter un petit univers patiemment construit : papa est un espion, maman s'offre à un jeune amant pervers, et fifille sèche ses cours pour flirter avec son petit ami. Tout ceci minutieusement conté, avec une indifférence apparente qui fait froid dans le dos." - Jean-Claude Perrier, Le Figaro

  • "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Apart from its occasionally interesting observations on contemporary South Korean society, Your Republic Is Calling You is too aloof to be compelling. Something has to pull readers into a story like this. If it's not the characters (who are little more than sketches) or the plot or the atmosphere (which are not paranoid enough), then the overall effect is chill and derivative -- like remixed Korean Kafka. I'm sure this exasperating novel will attract critical fans who will see all sorts of political and metaphysical significance in it, but my advice to mystery readers regarding Your Republic Is Calling You is to set your ring tone to mute." - Maureen Corrigan, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The action in Your Republic is Calling You only covers the span of a single day, set into motion by the man known as Kim Ki-Yong receiving an e-mail with 'Order 4' -- an order he has never previously gotten, and which he had long ago stopped expecting. It's simple and to the point. Indeed:

Ripe nuances disappear and only one meaning remains: "Liquidate everything and return immediately. This order will not be revoked."
       Kim Ki-Yong is a North Korean agent, sent to the South in 1984, the name he goes under that of a South Korean orphan who disappeared and whose identity he assumed. After attending college in the South he had worked undercover to facilitate other agents' entry into the South, but after his handler had been purged a decade earlier the North seemed to have forgotten about him. This was the first time he had been contacted in ages -- and he has no idea why, or what it means. It's mystifying:
It looks like he hasn't been active for the past ten years. How's that possible ? He just imports movies that make you fall asleep, and that's it ! Crazy son of a bitch.
       Ki-Yong had built up a life in the South: he's married and has a teenage daughter, he's modestly successful as a film distributor (more successful than some of his fellow-agents, certainly). But he's a divided man:
The first twenty-one years of his life were spent in the North, the latter twenty-one in the South -- his life is divided between the two cleanly, exactly in half. The two halves -- the student who studied English at Pyongyang University of Foreign Studies and believed he owned the world, and the illegal immigrant who lived quietly as an orphan -- are disparate and float around separately, much like puzzle pieces that don't fit together.
       Ki-Yong isn't sure what to do -- or what awaits him. He has good reason to believe he is being followed and watched now that the order has been given, but can't be sure by whom -- the South Korean secret service, if he has been compromised, or North Koreans, who want to make sure that he does, indeed, abandon ship as ordered. He tries to gather his thoughts, and there are a few things he has to take care of -- and, most importantly, he has to decide whether to go (risking an uncertain future in grim North Korea) or stay (risking the North putting out a contract on him, or the southern authorities detaining him).
       The novel also follows the lives of his wife, Ma-ri, and his daughter, Hyon-mi, over the course of this one day and night. Ma-ri arranges a meeting with her boyfriend, and a sexual escapade he's long wanted to try out, while Hyon-mi is a teenager trying to figure out what she wants (now that she's give up the game of Go, at which she excelled). It's not the an entirely conventional family life, but near enough to normal -- even if Ki-Yong (mistakenly) believes the lust has gone out of Ma-ri.
       Over the course of the novel Ki-Yong's background and training is presented, too, as well as how he established himself in South Korea -- his personality ideally suited for blending in largely unnoticed. It's an interesting take -- particularly because of the timing of Ki-Yong's arrival, and the different paths South and North Korea took from then on. Until then, much had been similar, especially ideologically:
Like the prince and the pauper in Mark Twain's classic, the ethics of the South and the North were similar enough that when they ran into each other, each recognized something in the other.
       But from the mid-1980s the countries diverged rapidly:
     In the 1980s, when Ki-Yong was in college, South Korea was closer to North Korea than it was to today's South. Jobs were guaranteed for life and college students never worried about their futures. The banks and conglomerates with their lobbies of imported marble, seemed indestructible. Adult children took care of their parents and respected them. The president was chosen by a huge margin, through indirect election, and the opposition party existed only in name. Most people weren't too interested in the world beyond South Korea's borders. The North's motto, "Let's Live Our Way," described South Korea during the 1980s. In redistributing resources, the government's whim was more powerful than market principles, so government employees were severely corrupted by rampant bribes and fraudulent dealings, just like in the North.
       A good part of the novel follows what Ma-ri and Hyon-mi do over the course of the day, little of which has to do with Ki-Yong and his dilemma -- but what they do and go through reflects some of the issues of contemporary South Korean life, and as such serves a useful purpose too (though these storylines prove a bit distracting, too, because they go in such different directions).
       Ki-Yong is not particularly tempted by the the North, but understands it may be for the best for him to return there. With its fake Seoul, where Ki-Yong practiced blending in and acting like a southerner, he knows it offers barely the shadow of the life he's led for the past two decades. But the South is not some paradise, either -- he had realized long ago, for example, that:
the South specialized in lifelessness and defeatism. Indiscriminate weariness was prevalent.
       Ki-Yong vacillates until very near the end; ultimately, the choice isn't really his to make.
       Your Republic is Calling You is a story of life in the two Koreas, and especially of how they have diverged after 1985, and it's an often fascinating take on country, society, and one's role in them. It's a somewhat odd mix between thriller -- there's considerable tension and suspense as Ki-Yong is being chased, and since he's undecided about whether to truly go on the run or (possibly equally dangerously) go to the pick-up point from which he's to be transported back north -- and social novel, but overall Kim Young-ha achieves a decent balance.
       [Note that the Korean title, 빛의 제국, refers to the Magritte painting, L'Empire des Lumières, which is also mentioned in a pivotal scene in the novel itself.]

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 June 2010

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Your Republic is Calling You: Reviews: Other books by Kim Young-ha under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • B.R.Myers' book on How North Koreans See Themselves -- and Why It Matters, The Cleanest Race
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       Korean author Kim Young-ha (김영하) was born in 1968.

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© 2010-2019 the complete review

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