The former black marketeer has read it. So has the beautiful young librarian, and the aging philosophy professor who has spent his life teaching the ruling doctrine of this isolated outpost of totalitarian socialism. At times it seems as if everyone in Pyongyang, a city full of monuments to its own mythology, has read the book.
In it they found a tortured love story, or a parable of bourgeois decline. Many found heroes. They lost themselves in the story of a nation divided by war, its defeated cities reduced to smolder and ruins, its humbled aristocrats reduced to starvation.
The book is “Gone With the Wind.”
To come across Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 Civil War epic in North Korea is to stumble over the unlikeliest of American cultural touchstones in the unlikeliest of places.
What does antebellum plantation life have to do with North Korea, where three generations of rulers — grandfather, father and now the young son, Kim Jong Un — have been worshipped as omniscient? What appeal does Scarlett O’Hara’s high-society ruthlessness hold for people only a few years past a horrific famine?
And yet here, in a country thought to have the world’s tightest censorship net, a place where the literary culture was largely inherited from Joseph Stalin, the government has published a novel that longs for the days of the slave-owning American South.
Maybe the explanation is in Mitchell’s own words.
“They had known war and terror and hunger, had seen dear ones dead before their times,” Mitchell writes of postwar southerners. “They had hungered and been ragged and lived with the wolf at the door. And they had rebuilt fortune from ruin.”
In “Gone With the Wind,” North Koreans found echoes of their own history and insights into the United States: bloody civil wars fought nearly a century apart; two cities — Atlanta and Pyongyang — reduced to rubble after attacks by U.S. forces; two cultures that still celebrate the way they stood up to the Yankees. If North Koreans have yet to find fortune, they haven’t given up.
“In North Korea only the strong survive,” said the onetime black marketeer, a former salesman of used televisions who spent much of his life in Pyongyang but who eventually escaped to South Korea. “That’s the most compelling message of the novel.”
Perhaps more than anything, though, North Koreans found what readers everywhere ask of a good novel: an escape and a comfort. And in a country with little in the way of entertainment, a police state that keeps the entire population relentlessly on edge, Mitchell’s well-told (if relentlessly soapy) tale of lost love, mansion life, war and honor became an important refuge.