I'd really give this a 4.5, since I think Kim has better work yet to come, but I'm loathe to give it a 4.
In the Kafka-esque `Your Republic is Calling You" Kim Young-ha creates his most integrated and human work.Intricately plotted and multiply narrated, "Your Republic is Calling You" begins a bit angularly, as if Kim is trying to work too many things into too little space. There is lots of expository internal-monologue revealing histories, judgments, and nostalgic presentations of past events. Things settle down however, and as it focuses on characters for longer periods of time, the book catches its stride.
The plot is deceptively simple - it follows one day in the life of a North Korean spy who is apparently being called back home. This call unravels his life in ways that are predictable and unpredictable.
The "spying" metaphor is at the heart the book as all its characters are, one way or another, undercover. It is one of Kim's skills that he reveals in a matter-of-fact fashion the difference between the public images of his characters and the lives they lead in their heads, in seedy motel rooms, prosaic offices, schools, and even in shootouts on the beach. Kim never shows his cards early, and as he makes each reveal, the tension and angst increase. By the end of "Republic," the undercover agent in each character has been exposed and each character squirms in the unexpected light.
Kim's writing is razor-sharp. Any reader who has been faced with the threat of loss will recognize Kim's description of the "premature nostalgia" that such a threat engenders. His writing about this general condition is specific and clever. A good example of Kim's specific descriptive ability is when he describes the illicit but often silly (and still dead-serious) thrill that comes with youthful rebellion:
For Southern youth in their early twenties, having been indoctrinated in anti-Communist education in schools, speaking this way felt vulgar, much like hearing a prim woman refer to a penis as a cock. At first, it was difficult for them to refer to the two heads of state as Dear Leader or The General, but once they did, they shivered with the excitement that came with breaking the law.
That's a passage that brilliantly outlines the borders and overlaps between "Big R" rebellion and the "Little R" rebellion of all young rebels. "Republic" is full of this kind of brilliant writing.
Which leads to a word related to translation: Kim Chi-young, who translated "Republic," has done a job that even surpasses her previous excellent translation of "A Toy City." Kim Chi-young is one of the few translators whose name alone, on a dustcover, would persuade me to purchase an unknown book.
This is an outstanding book and as the important threads tie together at the conclusion it moves at relentless speed. "Your Republic is Calling You" is taut, engaging, ironic, scathing, brutal and resigned in turns. The last 40 pages are exceptionally tightly written and the screws tighten, page by page, as life and a history of subterranean decisions conspire to strangle the lives of all the "agents" of the story.
In a brief coda Kim leaves us with a vision of a "new day" that can be read as ironic, hopeful or merely repetitive - In a world where everyone is a tout and `hopeful' is lagging at the rail.