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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Eine Liebe in Pjöngjang

Andreas Stichmann

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To purchase Eine Liebe in Pjöngjang

Title: Eine Liebe in Pjöngjang
Author: Andreas Stichmann
Genre: Novel
Written: 2022
Length: 160 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Eine Liebe in Pjöngjang - Deutschland
  • Eine Liebe in Pjöngjang has not yet been translated into English

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Our Assessment:

B : solid and appealingly low-key

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Süddeutsche Zeitung . 19/7/2022 Meike Feßmann
Die Zeit . 16/3/2022 Thomas E. Schmidt

  From the Reviews:
  • "Er hat seine Reiseerfahrung in eine Geschichte verwandelt, die vor Charme und Leichtigkeit schwebt. Dabei ist Eine Liebe in Pjöngjang schmal und konzentrier (.....) Der Roman erzählt einen durchaus realistischen Plot und infiltriert ihn mit romantischen Motiven. Sie ploppen an den unterschiedlichsten Stellen auf und blühen weitverzweigt vor sich hin. (...) Es ist also wirklich eine Form der "Universalpoesie", die Stichmann in seinem lakonisch zarten Roman gelingt, eine Sprache der Liebe und der Verbundenheit, die sich wie ein Pilzgeflecht ausbreitet." - Meike Feßmann, Süddeutsche Zeitung

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:

       Eine Liebe in Pjöngjang ('A Love in Pyongyang') is set in North Korea, where a delegation of two dozen Germans from the cultural sector arrives for the opening of a German library. Already on site is fifty-year-old Claudia Aebischer, the president of the Association of European Libraries, who has already been through this before, having worked on the opening of a dozen libraries and language schools in South East Asia over the years; this is to be her last project.
       The group's North Korean translator and liaison is Sunmi. Born in poverty near the Chinese border, she had lost her parents at a young age but proved to be a gifted student, even receiving a certificate to that effect, the kind of pass that could allow the child to improve her station. Despite not having an official travel permit, she was intrepid enough to make her way to the capital, Pyongyang, and was able to continue to go to school there, excelling. She eventually got her doctorate in classical German literature -- which shows in the archaisms that mark some of her spoken German -- and she speaks a number of languages. Among her duties in her job at the bureau of tourism is the evaluation and analysis of Western travel-bloggers' posts; this and her personal interactions with foreigners who visit North Korea give her some idea of the world at large, beyond the borders of her homeland.
       The German group is led to see the local sights -- not least the Kumsusan Palace, the mausoleum of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. As Claudia warns the group, they will only be shown the stage-play that is Pyongyang, not the real North Korea. They also remain closely watched and monitored.
       The visiting Germans remain mostly in the background, as the novel focuses on Claudia and Sunmi. Each dutifully and professionally does their work, but clearly has reason to be dissatisfied with their situations. Claudia has long had literary ambitions, and there's a lingering sense of disappointment that she didn't embark on the literary career she had once dreamt of. She has published three works of narrative non-fiction, but still regrets not devoting herself to the 'poetry-thing' ('Poesie-Ding') that she had envisioned in her youth. Set to leave her longtime position, she is clearly at the cusp of a new stage of her life.
       Sunmi is married to a considerably older veteran, a librarian and academic. The arrangement is one Sunmi accepts, but only in the way one must accept much in North Korea. Her considerable talents are also mostly wasted here -- but, again, there are no real alternatives.
       Both now find themselves at various crossroads. Sunmi and Claudia are attracted to one another but, understanding their surroundings, can only cautiously sound one another out. The library is opened, but the project basically seems doomed from the start. While the other Germans soon travel home, Claudia remains to see things through.
       A trip is organized north, to Mount Paektu, around where Sunmi spent her childhood, with Claudia being pushed to give a speech there (a compromising one, in the sense that it will be used as propaganda). The proximity to the border there also means it would allow for Sunmi to possibly escape the country -- something she appears increasingly eager to do.
       In a variety of ways, the trip does not go well; admirably, then, Stichmann does not opt for the easy wrap-up of the novel. The realistic resolution does not offer the simple satisfactions that the story arc might have led to -- but then all along Stichmann allows for the complexities and ambiguities of the situation and his two protagonists, and the possibilities of forms of salvation. He does not sensationalize the locale, as it would be easy to do, but uses it well; the setting and conditions largely serve to intensify the character-portraits of the two women at the center of the novel, and the choices they face.
       Claudia was born and raised in then-still East Germany. She adjusted to the shift which came with reünification while clearly still marked by her background. Sunmi has gone through much more, especially in her childhood and youth, and is still constantly seeking -- not least through literature, and through her interactions with foreigners -- and feeling her way, finding in Claudia someone who perhaps suggests some things that had previously been closed to her. So, for example, she finds:

Sprache: Musste doch klingen und klingeln und überraschen und öffnen. Seit weit über zehn Jahren sprach sie mit Touristen aller Länder, und mit fast allen war das exakte Gegenteil der Fall. Plattitüden, wo Anspielungen und Anregungen durchaus erlaubt gewesen wären. Komplimente, aber nie so, dass sie ihr etwas Neues über sich verrieten. Sätze, deren Enden immer schon abzusehen waren.

[Language: it had to resound and ring and surprise and open. For well over ten years she had spoken to tourists from many countries, and with almost all of them the exact opposite was the case. Platitudes where allusions and suggestions would have been perfectly permissible. Compliments, but never in a way that told her something new about her. Sentences whose ends were always foreseeable.]
       Claudia is a kind of person she has not previously dealt with, and their cautious dance is well-choreographed here.
       Despite a few startling occurrences, Eine Liebe in Pjöngjang is a low-key narrative, Stichmann showing admirable restraint (despite the temptations of the exotic locale, the truly other-worldly North Korea). Arguably, too much is merely sketched -- though at times certainly effectively, as in Sunmi's harrowing journey to Pyongyang, and then her establishing herself there -- and the novel could have borne some more weight, but there's something to be said for it not trying to be too substantial.
       A well-crafted little read, if not that much more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 September 2022

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Eine Liebe in Pjöngjang: Reviews: Andreas Stichmann: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature
  • See Index of Travel-related books

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About the Author:

       German author Andreas Stichmann was born in 1983.

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© 2022 the complete review

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