Tag Archives: George Orwell

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

A great title for a great book. Although the title (presumably) comes from one of the many propaganda signs found ubiquitously around North Korea (세상에 부럼 없어라 – We have nothing to envy in the world.), it could very well be a welcome sign at the “international” airport in Pyongyang, the country’s capital city.

The author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, award-winning journalist Barbara Demick, does a commendable job of getting six North Korean defectors from in and around the Chongjin (청진) area to open up about their lives, the lives of their family members and friends, and the lives of those around them while they were citizens of the Hermit Kingdom 2.0 and then after they arrive in South Korea. Even the most uninterested non-Koreaphiles will be turning the page and wanting more because it’s no different than reading a (real-life) modern-day version of Orwell’s 1984.

What really sets this book apart is the way the author constructs the narrative of the North Koreans who have escaped the ravages of life under Kim Il-sung and subsequently under Kim Jong-il. The fancy way of putting it is that Demick combines a Greek approach to tragedy through the predicaments these people face and the weaknesses which hold them back from successfully overcoming these challenges with a more modern tradition of making them human, fettered by flaws that are relatable and evoke anguish-filled empathy, with irony dripping over it all at pretty much every turn.

We want to scream out loud as these victims of a state-run campaign to destroy them in every facet of their lives keep telling themselves how great Kim Il-sung is, how great life is in North Korea, and how great everything will be once the rest of the world catches up to them technologically, politically and morally.

Even as people are dropping dead all around them during the Great Famine of the 1990s, it’s “Let’s stay strong on this Arduous March!” Just go! we want to tell these people. Get the hell out of Dodge! Cross the bloody Tumen River and then find a way — any way — to South Korea.

The most memorable revelations in this book are simple everyday moments that make you, the reader, pause for a few heartbreaking seconds and go, Holy shit. There really is a hell on Earth. For me, some of these moments included a woman collapsing as she entered China, falling to the ground, and discovering that the Chinese feed their dogs better, more nutritious food than the North Korean government did its own citizens; a highly educated defector getting to South Korea, reading 1984, and wondering how Orwell nailed it so perfectly years before this nightmare unfolded in North Korea; and hearing Kim Jong-il’s real voice through an illegal TV broadcast and realizing exactly what the Japanese did on August 15, 1945 — that small, tiny, weak voice was what we cowered under for a lifetime?

If you like learning and you enjoy a good ol’ tragedy, you will love this book. It is replete with so many of the most human of traits: through its pages we find first love, we please our parents and strive for the very best, we work hard and have big dreams of success and children and food on the table — and then we have it all obliterated. At the very least, it’s proof that the best of humanity does triumph in the face of unimaginable adversity. And while love may not always conquer every foe — real or imagined — it does propel us to new heights, it does inspire us to achieve the unachievable, and even when it does die a sad, lonely death, we are left with an enduring feeling that we are better people for having loved at all.



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Beware: Artistry Kills

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As Fantine sings so gloriously in Les Miserables upon being left alone, jobless, and utterly destitute:

There was a time when men were kind
When their voices were soft
And their words inviting
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting
There was a time…

Then it all went wrong

Indeed, sometimes it goes horribly wrong, especially for artists who pretty much throw their souls into their work with (apparently) no interest in whether they pop up the better side of Mt. BreakMyHeart.

Emily Temple has put together a little list of authors that all you HSP writers out there should heed. In a piece titled “6 Famous Writers Injured While Writing: When Making Stuff is Hazardous to Your Health,” Ms. Temple gets straight to the point with these tragic stories about six famous writers, most of whom you know and probably respect.

Here’s the brief version of who you’ll see on this all-star ballot.

  1. If you could even begin to imagine the pain George Orwell was in as he penned the final pages of Nineteen Eighty-Four, you’d go back and read it with a lot more sympathy (not the anger that your high school English teacher aroused in you for making you read it). I don’t like using the word “literally” literally, but Orwell literally spent the last two months of his life bed-ridden with tuberculosis, coughing up blood and figuring out how to bring an end to Big Brother.
  2. If you know anything about Moby-Dick the book, then you already know a lot about Herman Melville. If not, read Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex to see the definition of bad luck played out in slow motion. Sunk at sea? Check. Survivor of the longest rescue mission in maritime history? Yep. Forced to resort to cannibalism. See previous said book. Sunk at sea a second time while captaining a ship? Hells yeah, only to return to Nantucket and basically kill himself writing Moby-Dick.
  3. You might not know the Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, but to reference Dr. Andrea Dinardo from yesterday’s post, the guy had a serious case of the HSP. I mean, here was a dude who lived to write – and only write, it seemed – describing himself thusly as a result of his literary predilections: “I have woefully and incurably ruined myself for the rest of my life, rendering my appearance terrible and despicable to most people.” He’d write himself dead before his 40th birthday.
  4. Are you reading this whilst enjoying a cup of morning Joe? Do you presently find yourself at a coffee shop? Then obviously Honoré de Balzac is your man. Here’s a guy who loved coffee so much, and grew so addicted to it, that by the end of the show he was eating coffee beans on an empty stomach to maximize the uptake of its caffeine. No surprise that by the age of 51, Balzac was dead of – you guessed it! – caffeine poisoning.
  5. Oh, Ayn Rand, where art thou? Rand’s dependence on Benzedrine (amphetamines) grew so severe during the writing of The Fountainhead that she was basically an eight-car pile-up of a trainwreck by the end of it, with one biographer stating that “by the time the book was complete Rand’s doctor diagnosed her as close to a nervous breakdown and ordered her to take two weeks of complete rest.”
  6. Okay, here’s a look at the daily schedule of one Franz Kafka: 8:30 am-2:30 pm (job); 2:30-7:30 pm (lunch and sleep); 7:30-11 pm (exercises, family dinner); 11 pm-1/2/3…6 am (write like a MoFo); repeat until death. As Ms. Temple writes: “This weakened state may or may not have played a role in his contraction of laryngeal tuberculosis and its subsequent ravages on his body, so it’s too much to say his work killed him, but it certainly seems relevant. His throat closed up, precluding the ingestion of any food, and so he technically died of starvation, working on his story “The Hunger Artist” to the very last.” WTF?

So there you have it. If you have plans to become a writer, get some kind of insurance policy in case you starve to death, end up on a diet of coffee beans, or need to relocate to your bedroom because you can’t stop coughing up blood.

All I have to say is this: Where have all the great writers gone! Notice that Hemingway didn’t even make that list. Man up, Papa!


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Quote of the Day

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As part of the 2-for-1 George Orwell package that I began earlier with my post on “Perseverance,” the Quote of the Day comes from none other than Mr. Orwell himself and his Magna Carta…err…magnum opus, Ninety Eighty-Four.

For all you cunning linguists out there who speak one or more foreign language, you’ll probably read into this on a deeper level, all too aware of how language can shape our biases – and the other way around – when we step out of the comfort zone of our mother tongue.

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”

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Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention, but impending death can be just as powerful a source of inspiration when it comes to creation.

Today, I think it’s fair to say that almost everybody in the West is familiar with some part of George Orwell’s writings, even if it is unconsciously through such thought-provoking shows as Big Brother.

While Orwell is still famous all these decades on for works including Animal Farm, it is undoubtedly Nineteen Eighty-Four that continues to resonate with us more than any of his other stories. Perhaps not surprisingly, especially for those who believe in life mirroring art (and vice versa), the road to completing Orwell’s opus was nothing short of heartbreakingly tragic – and yet somehow uplifting, if for no other reason than the sheer determination he showed in getting down on paper what would quickly become one of the most influential novels of the 20th century.

As Robert McCrum noted in an article for The Guardian titled “The masterpiece that killed George Orwell,” Mr. McCrum “tells the compelling story of Orwell’s torturous stay on the [remote Scottish] island where the author, close to death and beset by creative demons, was engaged in a feverish race to finish the book.”

In a nutshell (stress the nut in this “shell”), Orwell suffered through the misery of living in wartime London in the lead-up to writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, what with the bombings, the rations, and the constant fear of death in some variety. Then his flat was torn asunder by doodlebugs (i.e. his apartment was destroyed by termite-like bugs) just after he and his wife Eileen adopted their only child, Richard. Then, two months before VE Day and the end of the war in Europe, his wife died under anesthesia during a routine operation.

Penniless, suffering from ill health as a result of his chest/lung problems, and heartbroken at the loss of his wife at such a young age, the widower and single parent traveled to the island of Jura, Scotland, where his friend and boss from The Observer owned an estate he said Orwell could use to pen his next novel.

While living and writing on the inhospitable rock (“mountainous, bare and infertile, covered largely by vast areas of blanket fog”), Orwell nearly drowned one day while out with his son, only to develop TB and be mostly bedridden for the rest of his days. No matter how sluggish his days, however, Orwell crept along and finished what initially he called The Last Man in Europe, but later settled on as Ninety Eighty-Four.

As he wrote years earlier in an essay, almost presaging this final dance with his craft:

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist or [sic] understand. For all one knows that demon is the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality.”

By the end of 1948, when he submitted the manuscript, Orwell’s health was deteriorating quickly. Nonetheless, Ninety Eighty-Four was published on June 8, 1949 to huge acclaim, and people across the English-speaking world awoke that day to the opening line of a novel that has since become timeless: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

Although he remarried in October 1948, any happiness he might have felt was short-lived; Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) died, alone, of a massive haemorrhage on January 21, 1950. And as despondent as his “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle” passage may seem, it did end on what Mr. McCrum called “that famous Orwellian coda.”

“Good prose is like a window pane.”


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