Archive for November, 2012

Front cover of The Swiss Alps by Kev Reynolds

The Swiss Alps, Kev Reynolds (Cicerone, World Mountain Range series, 2012)

The Matterhorn is probably the most photogenic mountain in the world. That’s why it sits on the front cover of this book, a giant fang of icy black rock biting at the blue palate of heaven. It looks fearsome and formidable, eager to kill anyone who challenges its freezing heights. But its looks are deceptive. The Swiss Alps offer much more dangerous climbs, like the Eigerwand, or north face of the Eiger:

Between August 1935 and June 1938, four separate attempts by German, Austrian and Italian climbers were made to scale the Eigerwand, resulting in no less than eight casualties. The deaths brought the mountain a savage notoriety which resulted in a decree by the Swiss government that banned all climbing on the wall. (ch. 5, sec. 8, “The Bernese Alps: Grindelwald and the Lütschental”, pg. 331-2)

The Eiger is probably the world’s third-most famous mountain, after Everest and the Matterhorn. Human beings have been gazing in awe at all three for millennia, but began trying to climb them only in the past two centuries. That’s interesting both historically and culturally. Psychologically too: it took serious courage to challenge the Eigerwand and climbers didn’t let the ban stop them trying. The first ascent was finally made by two Austrians and two Germans, who spent four days on freezing, avalanche-prone vertical rock to reach the summit on 24th July, 1938: “As Walt Unsworth says in Hold the Heights, ‘It was a breakthrough as profound as the first ascent of the Matterhorn had been or the Brenva Spur but much more wide-reaching because it became the cornerstone of all modern mountaineering.’” (pg. 332) This book is full of interesting mountain-lore and mountain-history like that, devoting more than 400 pages to almost every aspect of climbing and tramping in the Swiss Alps. That’s a lot of orology (Greek oros, mountain), but it raises an interesting question about biology (Greek bios, life). Why is climbing mountains so important to human beings? Or rather, why is it so important to white male Europeans? That group has dominated mountaineering since pioneering it in the nineteenth century.

The Englishman Edward Whymper started things with a bang in 1865, when he was the first to climb the Matterhorn. The ascent was more important psychologically than orologically: as pointed out above, the Matterhorn looks more formidable than it is. If Whymper had climbed a tougher mountain that looked easier, his feat wouldn’t have been so widely reported or been so inspiring to others. There’s a lot of mens in conquest of a mons: it’s mind over matter in a particularly spectacular and satisfying way. But that mens has had particular characteristics: it’s been overwhelmingly white, male and European. Recall that the Eigerwand was first climbed by Austrians and Germans. A year later, members of the same demonic demographic would set out on a different kind of conquest and start the Second World War. Was that a coincidence? I don’t think it was. I think there’s a connexion between war and mountaineering, because both are about power, will, and domination. Austrians, Germans, and Italians all risked death and mutilation to challenge the Eigerwand, and those races were part of the Axis during the war. So were the Japanese, another pale-skinned race with wilful and war-like traditions, and the Japanese have been important in modern mountaineering too. It’s a Faustian endeavour: climbers seek to challenge and conquer nature, to push themselves to their physical and mental limits, to win fame and glory or die in the attempt.

Even easy mountains can kill you and even the most skilful climbers can die there. You don’t just push your mind and body in climbing: you push your luck. Ropes broke a lot in the early days; rocks fall a lot nowadays:

When Whymper was here the Matterhorn still had “a cordon drawn around it, up to which one might go, but no further”. Today Zermatt [the district of the Matterhorn] is the epitome of Leslie Stephen’s Playground of Europe. And yet, despite it all, even in the height of summer it remains possible to find solitude amidst impeccable scenery, and one can still climb routes on the most popular of peaks without the fear of being bombarded by rocks dislodged by other parties above, and experience again the mystique that made the pioneers gasp in awe. Zermatt may be bursting at the seams, its slopes tunnelled through and laced with cableways, but all is not yet lost. (ch. 2, sec. 10, “The Mattertal”, pg. 157)

Rocks also fall because of “glacial recession”: the famous White Spider, an arachnoid snow-patch near the top of the Eigerwand, disappeared in “the hot summer of 2003… and the ice-fields were reduced to gravel, making it even more dangerous than normal” (pg. 332). Global warming is at work in the Alps, you see, but that may be another way white male Europeans have made their mark on the world. Mountaineering is connected, sometimes literally, to their invention of and continuing domination of science and technology, with strong support from other pale-skinned, highly intelligent groups like the Chinese and Japanese. While white males like Edward Whymper were climbing literal peaks in the nineteenth century, white males like Faraday and Darwin were climbing metaphorical ones, seeking to conquer nature through observation and reason. It’s all connected and it’s no coincidence that the first human being to set foot on the moon was a white male. After scaling the heights of the earth and plumbing the depths of the ocean, white males needed a new challenge and found it in outer space. This book isn’t a conscious celebration of the white male’s Faustian quest, but the evil-intentioned can certainly read it that way. But decent people will enjoy it too. There’s not just orology, hydrology, and climatology here: you’ll also find linguistics and Swiss history:

Valle di Bosco is shorter than its neighbour, and at 1503m its only true village, Bosco Gurin, is the highest in Ticino. Settled in the 13th century by German-speaking Walsters from the upper Rhône valley, the inhabitants today still speak a form of Schwyzerdütsch [Swiss German], rather than Italian. (ch. 3, sec. 6, “Lepontine and Adula Alps: Valle Maggia and Its Tributaries”, pg. 211)

If you write about the Swiss Alps, you also have to write about Switzerland, and Switzerland is an interesting place. One interesting thing is its demographics, which means that its genetics will be interesting too. Living among mountains has effects on the body and brain, so Swiss geography has been written into Swiss genomes, as genetics is now discovering. But it’s interesting that the Swiss didn’t pioneer climbing in the Swiss Alps. Brits did, and Britain isn’t rich in mountains. Brits had to seek them out, first in Europe, later in the Himalayas, where you can find the most dangerous climbs and the most awe-inspiring landscapes. But Switzerland can sound Himalayan too:

Rising steeply from a riot of sub-tropical vegetation, where ferns grow as high as man’s shoulder, to a headwall of granite teeth, soaring slab walls and a necklace of scree and glacial moraine, Bondasca’s reputation is assured. The “flamelike” Scioras, Pizzi Gemelli, Cengalo and Badile are compelling features in Christian Klucker’s famous “land of granite”, where several chapters of Alpine history were written: the unhappy but productive partnership in the 1890s of Klucker and the Russian Anton von Rydzewski; the inspired leadership of Riccardo Cassin on the first tragic ascent of Piz Badile’s NE face over three days in 1937; Rébuffet’s account (in Starlight and Storm) of the second ascent of the wall 11 years later; and Herman Buhl’s astonishing 4½hr solo climb of the same route in 1951 – all these have given the valley a romantic appeal, and made it a magnet not only for climbers of ambition, but for all who love wild and uncompromising landscapes. (ch. 4, sec. 3, “Bernina, Bregaglia and Albula Alps: Val Bregaglia”, pg. 261)

This book should be a magnet for anyone interested in men, minds, and mountains. It’s got an interesting text, attractive photographs, and easy-to-follow maps. And, as a further recommendation, it’s published by a small company called Cicerone based in Milnethorpe in Cumbria. Cicerone is Italian for “tourist-guide” and is derived from Cicero, the Latin orator who wrote about the Faustian feats of ancient Rome. Two millennia later, Kev Reynolds is another white male writing about further Faustian feats. There’s a satisfying symmetry there, as there is in the location of the publisher: Milnethorpe is a small place, Switzerland is a small country. There’s a satisfying a-symmetry in mountains, but their visual appeal is still mathematical. Like the clouds that float above them and the trees (and ferns) that grow on them, mountains are fractals, or shapes in which the parts reflect the whole. You don’t have to see the maths to savour books like this, but I think it helps. Maths is inseparable from mountains, whether you recognize it or not. So are white men. Vivant Alpes, vivant Albi!

Read Full Post »

Readers’ advisory: Contains plot-spoilers and a Nietzsche quote.

Crude, clichéd, but compelling. That’s how I’d describe Michael Connelly’s crime novels. And they’re sometimes clever too. His chief character is a Hiero for our times: jazz-loving Vietnam-vet loner Harry Bosch, a maverick murder detective fighting the flood of evil and horror in Los Angeles. The Bosch books are L.A.P.D. noir – very noir, as Bosch’s full name suggests: Hieronymus Bosch. His unmarried prostitute mother, who was raped and murdered while he was still a boy, named him after the proto-surreal Dutch apocalypticist. The books are also L.A.P.D. P.C. – very P.C. But not very original in their P.C. A sure way to spot a bad lad in a Bosch book is that he uses racist language or expresses racist ideas. This is Bosch’s senior officer, Lieutenant Pounds, visiting a crime scene in South Central L.A.:

There was still a lot of debris in the building’s shell. Charred ceiling beams and timber, broken concrete block and other rubble. Pounds caught up with Bosch and they began carefully stepping through to the gathering beneath the tarp.

“They’ll bulldoze this and make another parking lot,” Pounds said. “That’s all the riots gave the city. About a thousand new parking lots. You want to park in South Central these days, no problem. You want a bottle of soda or to put gas in your car, then you got a problem. They burned every place down. You drive through the South Side before Christmas? They got Christmas tree lots every block, all the open space down there. I still don’t understand why those people burned their own neighborhoods.”

Bosch knew that the fact people like Pounds didn’t understand why “those people” did what they did was one reason they did it, and would have to do it again someday. Bosch looked at it as a cycle. Every twenty-five years or so the city had its soul torched by the fires of reality. But then it drove on. Quickly, without looking back. Like a hit-and-run. (The Concrete Blonde, 1994, ch. 2)

Are you surprised to hear that Pounds meets a bad end? A writer is like a god, creating and controlling a world of his own, and he can ensure that blasphemers like Pounds are punished as they deserve to be. And all too often aren’t in real life, alas: blacks are still groaning under racist oppression not just in Los Angeles but in the U.S. as a whole. Sooner or later, as Bosch sadly but wisely foresees, they “will have” to burn “their own neighborhoods” again.

Which will make their problems worse. But what choice do they have? Blacks aren’t fully human and don’t have free will, intelligence, or reason like whites. That, at least, is what racists think. Racists like Pounds? No, racists like Harry Bosch and his creator Michael Connelly. Think about what is really going on in the passage I quote above. Pounds is puzzled by the arson because it was stupid, irrational, and malign. In other words, his premise is that blacks are intelligent, rational and benign people. The arson of the L.A. riots appears to contradict that premise, so Pounds is puzzled.

Bosch, on the other hand, looks “at it as a cycle”, a natural rhythm of black behaviour. They’re oppressed, so they react by making things worse for themselves. Bosch and his creator are actually white male supremacists, but then that’s because they’re liberals. If you listen to what liberals say, you’ll think that they believe in human equality: that we’re all the same under the skin, regardless of race, sex, sexuality, disability, or any other irrelevant externality-issue factor. If you watch what liberals do, however, you’ll realize that they don’t believe in human equality at all. Liberalism secretly operates on the principle that only one group is fully human. Which group is it? White heterosexual able-bodied males, or WHAMs.

In liberalism, only WHAMs have free will and only WHAMs can be blamed for bad behaviour. They oppress everyone else; everyone else is oppressed by them. That’s why it’s so important to criticize WHAMs, take power off them, and punish them for their sins. They could choose good; instead, they choose evil. But when blacks commit arson, loot, and murder large numbers of people, as they did in the L.A. riots, no blame attaches to them. It’s a cycle, a natural rhythm, as mindless and irrational as an earthquake or hurricane. When blacks misbehave, they’re not to blame. The real immorality is committed by WHAMs like Pounds, who don’t “understand why ‘those people’ did what they did”. But this dichotomy contradicts the official liberal line on human nature: that we’re all the same under the skin and any group is capable of doing anything done by any other group.

For example, the Jewish-American scientist Jared Diamond argues in Guns, Germs and Steel (1997) that European and Asian achievements are entirely owed to geography, not at all to genetics. Blacks in Africa were just as capable of building cathedrals, inventing gunpowder, or landing on the moon, but they weren’t living in the right environment. Note where Diamond’s reasoning also leads: it means that blacks were just as capable of conquering and oppressing whites as vice versa. It’s just an accident of history that whites had black slaves and are still preventing blacks from realizing their gigantic potential. We’re all the same under the skin, so if the geographic dice had rolled differently, the tables would have been turned: blacks would have enslaved whites and would now be preventing whites from realizing their potential. Harry Bosch could have been black, named after a black artistic genius, and L.A. could have been full of poor, downtrodden whites oppressed by a non-white elite. The same goes for all other forms of oppression and bigotry. WHAMs have used their power to oppress non-WHAMs, but non-WHAMs are just as capable of being oppressors, when they get the chance. That is the clear logic of liberal dogma on human nature.

How often do you hear liberals point that logic out? I’ve never heard them point it out at all, because they don’t really believe it. Their aim is not to end injustice against non-WHAMs but to induce guilt in WHAMs, whether it’s deserved or not. But even if it is deserved, it can’t be culpable, if we follow the logic of “We’re All the Same under the Skin”. If liberal ideology is correct, it’s absurd for liberals to be self-righteous and indignant about racism, sexism, homophobia, and other evil WHAM prejudices. We’re all essentially the same, so we’re all potential oppressors and it’s merely chance that group W is oppressing groups X, Y, and Z. But have you ever heard liberals say that? No, they always blame wilful evil by group W, and seem to think that X, Y, and Z, by virtue of being oppressed, have some special saintly status. They can’t have, if liberal dogma is correct. It isn’t, but liberals don’t believe in it anyway: dogma is for preaching, not for practising. The truth is that liberalism, like the overt religions it so often criticizes, isn’t really out to achieve its loudly proclaimed goals. It isn’t really about ending oppression and injustice: it’s about gaining power and money by inducing guilt and censoring dissent. Those who complain most loudly about injustice are often those who are most eager to practice it:

If the suffering and oppressed lost the faith that they have the right to despise the will to power, they would enter the phase of hopeless despair. This would be the case if this trait were essential to life and it could be shown that even in this will to morality this very “will to power” is hidden, and even this hatred and contempt were still a will to power. The oppressed would come to see that they were on the same plain as the oppressors, without prerogative, without higher rank. (The Will to Power, Book One: European Nihilism, #55, translated by Walter Kaufmann)

Also sprach – thus spoke – Friedrich Nietzsche, a WHAM from the nineteenth century who remains one of the best and most acute critics of the self-contradictions, absurdities, and evils of liberalism, of whatever variety: the genuine variety, as preached by benevolent men like John Stuart Mill in the 19th century, or the crypto-Marxist variety, as preached by malevolent women like Hillary Clinton in the 21st.

I call Hillary “malevolent” because I’m an evil anti-liberal WHAM, of course. As a liberal WHAM, Michael Connelly does not believe in wilful female malevolence. Female misbehaviour, like black misbehaviour, is really the fault of WHAMs. At least, that was the line he plugged for many years. A wilfully malevolent female has finally turned up in one of his books, but you won’t need to told what race she is. She is certainly not a “sister”, literal or otherwise, of Kizmin “Kiz” Rider, the black lesbian detective who partners Bosch in Trunk Music (1997) and Angels Flight (1999). Rider has “grown up in south L.A.” and, because she combines three richly vibrant strands of non-WHAM-ness, she doesn’t stay long in the murder squad. She’s head-hunted by the Chief’s office, though she continues to help Bosch in his struggle against WHAM evil.

But Rider does offer strong hints that Connelly isn’t a fully orthodox liberal. For example, she gets herself shot and wounded by a serial killer in Angels Flight and she’s become too tied to the L.A.P.D. bureaucracy in The Drop (2011). Bosch is disappointed in her, though he does recognize that she’s been corrupted by a white system. And the serial killer who shot her is white, of course: Connelly is fully orthodox in never admitting that WHAMs are actually under-represented in serial killing, not the reverse. However, hints of his heterodoxy are apparent again in Jerry Edgar, another of Bosch’s black partners. In The Black Echo (1992), the first book in the Bosch series, Edgar is more attached to his part-time estate-agency work than he is to solving murders. Unlike Bosch, he doesn’t have “a wire in the blood” that drags him to devote his life to fighting the WHAM evil that ravages the world. He doesn’t think that “everybody counts or nobody counts” and, unlike Bosch, who’s driven on by memories of his mother’s death, he won’t devote as much effort to the murder of a homeless drug-addict as to the murder of a high-powered lawyer or city-councillor. He even ends up betraying Bosch and passing information about one of their cases to a journalist on the L.A. Times.

After those two black partners, both of whom fall short of their mentor’s standards, Bosch has a Hispanic-American partner, Ignacio “Iggy” Ferras, in The Overlook (2007), The Brass Verdict (2008), and 9 Dragons (2009). He has a Chinese-American partner, David Chu, in 9 Dragons and The Drop. But Kiz Rider re-appears in The Drop to be told something decidedly heterodox about the Rodney King beating, the appalling act of WHAM evil that caused the L.A. riots. Although Rider is black, she’s also a policewoman, so Bosch feels able to take a pro-police line on the beating. The L.A.P.D., he points out, had previously relied on choke-holds to subdue violent suspects quickly and effectively. But choke-holds were killing too many blacks, liberals said, and they were complaining more and more loudly about police racism. Bosch describes the consequences of their compassion and concern:

“…the department then told the officers to rely more on their batons… Added to that, Tasers were coming into use just as the choke hold went out. And what did we get? Rodney King. A video that changed the world. A video of a guy being tased and whaled on with batons when a proper choke hold would’ve just put him to sleep.”

“Huh,” Rider said. “I never looked at it that way.” (Op. cit., pp. 173-4)

Many liberal readers of the Bosch books will never have looked at it that way either. But those hints of heterodoxy are rare: in the main, Connelly and his characters are fully orthodox. In the chaotic world of Harry Bosch, few things are certain. Death is one. WHAM evil is another. A third is: ethnic minorities never ever ever commit sex-crimes, let alone sex-crimes of a particularly violent and unpleasant kind. If a black or Hispanic is charged with a rape-murder in a Connelly book, you can be certain that a horrendous miscarriage of justice is under way and that Bosch or Micky Haller, Bosch’s lawyer half-brother and star of his own series, will be riding to the rescue.

But by following that liberal line on sex-crime and miscarriages of justice, Connelly is again being a white male supremacist. The active, interesting roles – those of sex-slayer and injustice-overturner – are taken by WHAMs. The passive, accidental role – the poor shmuck whom the racist WHAM system found in the wrong place at the wrong time – is taken by a non-WHAM. Black ’bangas and Hispanic homies are minor characters in a drama that centres on Bosch or Haller. Non-WHAMs suffer from evil, but they don’t create it or fight it the way WHAMs do. Nor do black lesbians like Kiz Rider. Although she lets Bosch down by getting too close to the L.A.P.D. bureaucracy, she isn’t responsible for its machinations. No, WHAMs like Irvine Irving are. He’s the Machiavellian Deputy Chief of Police Bosch clashes with repeatedly until Irving is hoist on his own petard and forced to retire at the end of The Closers (2005). He then becomes a city-councillor and in The Drop he’s putting his Machiavellian skills to work against the L.A.P.D. rather than for it. I suspect that Connelly is orchestrating the Bosch series towards what will be, for Bosch, a shattering revelation: that Irving, who knew Bosch’s prostitute-mother as a beat-officer, is his real father, not the famous attorney whom Bosch has recognized as such till now.

Whether or not that proves true, the way Connelly develops his characters is one of the things I admire about his books: despite the occasionally clumsy prose, Bosch seems to inhabit a real world with real people in it, including him. The Bosch who began the series in 1992 is not the same as the Bosch who continues it in 2012. He’s older, greyer, more scarred, and with more unhappy romantic history behind him. He also had a history when he began the series in The Black Echo: losing his mother as a boy, he went from a series of children’s homes and foster-families into the army, which sent him to fight in Vietnam as one of the “tunnel rats”, the soldiers who went into the tunnel-network dug by the Viet Cong. Connelly acknowledges two more compelling authors at the beginning of The Black Echo: “Tom Mangold and John Pennycate, whose book The Tunnels of Cu Chi tells the real story of the tunnel rats of the Vietnam war.” Fighting underground like that took a special kind of personality and a special kind of physique. Bosch is slight but strong and wiry, not big and muscle-bound, and he has balls of steel. He puts his wiry strength to work occasionally in the books, but only against other WHAMs. He puts his balls to work too, but only with WHAFs. One of the WHAFs bears him a daughter, but he doesn’t learn about this till a later book.

By then, Bosch fans will already know that Connelly has an interest in both pornography and paedophilia. He wouldn’t be writing about those things so often otherwise. Indeed, he occasionally combines the two interests and writes about kiddie porn. The murder-victim in The Concrete Blonde is a porn-actress called Magna Cum Loudly and Bosch has to enter the seedy and sleazy world of L.A.’s adult porn industry to track down her WHAM killer. Kiddie porn turns up in both City of Bones (2002) and Angels Flight (1999). In the latter, circumstantial evidence implicates a black petty criminal in a paedophile sex-murder, but he didn’t do it, of course. The victim turns out to be have been pimped out on-line by her WHAM father.

Is there no end to WHAM evil? Not in the Bosch books, but I do sometimes have to wonder about what is going on in the depths of Connelly’s mind. Bosch discovers he has a beautiful young daughter in Lost Light (2003), but in 9 Dragons she’s living an ocean away in Hong Kong with her mother, the ex-FBI agent Eleanor Wish. However, Wish is killed off before the end of that book and Bosch is living alone with his daughter in The Drop. Can you say Lolita? If you can, I wonder if Connelly’s subconscious is saying it too. Lolita (1955) was another study of WHAM evil and I found myself unable to re-read it when I tried it again recently. It got too yucky. I’ve found the same with some of Connelly’s books, both ones with Bosch and ones without him. Or ones that don’t centre on him, because his characters wander in and out of each other’s series. It’s an interesting way for Connelly to shift perspective and compare and contrast his own creations. Bosch is big in his own series, but sometimes peripheral elsewhere. One of the best Connelly books may be in the shortest series: the two books devoted to the crime-reporter Jack McEvoy, The Poet (1996) and The Scarecrow (2009). The latter was one of the books I couldn’t finish when I tried it again. A dumb black ’banga is charged with a gruesome sex-murder, but surprise, surprise: the murder was really committed by a WHAM serial killer with a leg-iron fetish and a very high IQ. The Poet I could finish when I tried it again. It’s gruesome too, but I liked its clever plot and its use of Edgar Allan Poe.

I also liked the clever plot of Blood Work (1998), a non-Bosch which is the only book I’ve ever felt compelled to re-read immediately I had finished it. The twist at the end of the book cast everything that happened before it into a new light, so I was almost experiencing a different book when I read it again. That is good writing and Connelly deserves his huge success, though I don’t think he would have been allowed to have it if he hadn’t toed the liberal line from the very beginning. I don’t like the fact that Connelly is a liberal, but I do think there’s hope for him. And I definitely admire his ability to produce interesting books at a rate of more than one a year since 1992. When The Black Box is published later this month (November 2012), it will be the seventeenth Bosch book and the twenty-sixth of Connelly’s crime-novels altogether. They’re sometimes crude, sometimes contrived, but usually compelling and often clever too. He’s wrong to slam so relentlessly on WHAMs, but coming events will show him the error of his ways. And slamming WHAMs is a tribute to their importance: whether he knows it or not, Connelly has always been a white male supremacist. Harry Bosch, like the painter he was named after, is an example of why WHAMs matter, why they’re so envied and hated, and why liberalism, with the help of many WHAMs, is so desperate to do them down.

Read Full Post »

Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, Blaine Harden (2012)

Under Nazism, people got killed for belonging to the wrong race. Under communism, people get killed for belonging to the wrong species. That is, in North Korea you don’t have to do or be anything wrong to be killed by the state. The system there isn’t designed to be just: it’s designed to be terrifying. But it doesn’t just kill people deliberately, in slave-labour camps and torture-chambers, it also kills them through inefficiency and incompetence. Even people high in the favour of the communist party have starved to death there during famines. If the capitalist world hadn’t supplied aid, even more would have died. The promise of communism, according to Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution (1924), was this:

The shell in which the cultural construction and self-education of Communist man will be enclosed, will develop all the vital elements of contemporary art to the highest point. Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.

The reality of North Korea, according to Blaine Harden, is this:

Nearly all [young refugees from North Korea] struggle with basic reading and maths. Some are cognitively impaired, apparently from acute malnutrition as infants… As young children, they grew up eating bark off trees and thinking it was normal. (ch. 21, pg. 188)

Shin Dong-hyuk, the subject of this book, grew up grubbing desperately for food in a slave-labour camp. He was born there and stayed there, guilty of being the child of two political prisoners, one of whom was guilty of having a brother who escaped to South Korea. The struggle to survive was so acute that he had little or no feeling for his family, according to Harden. His mother and elder brother were executed after he informed on them for attempting to escape. If he hadn’t done, he himself would have been in trouble, because any escape is blamed on the relatives. That includes suicide: in North Korea, the state owns everything, including its citizens’ lives. I’m not sure Marx himself was a psychopath, but he certainly helped create a lot of psychopathic governments. North Korea, which keeps Stalinism alive more than fifty years after Stalin’s death, is one of the worst. After Shin had informed on his mother, he was imprisoned underground and tortured anyway, because the guard to whom he reported the escape-attempt tried to claim all the credit for himself. Even when he convinced the camp authorities that he had been loyal to the state, rather than to his blood-relatives, he remained in that prison-within-a-prison until he was let out to see them executed.

How old was he then? He “had just turned fourteen” (ch. 8, pg. 75). And how did he feel about what had happened?

…he hated his mother and brother with the savage clarity of a wronged and wounded adolescent. As he saw it, he had been tortured and nearly died, and his father had been crippled, because of their foolish, self-centred scheming. (ibid., pg. 77)

Later, after he escaped, first to China, then to South Korea and America, he began to learn how to feel properly human, which meant he began to tortured by guilt. It was irrational for him to feel that way, but you can’t blame him. And who can you blame for what goes on in North Korea? The system has a life of its own, or rather a living death. North Korea is a zombie-state, lurching on down the highway of history even as it decomposes and disintegrates. There will be no happy ending there. Even if the regime collapses without launching attacks on Japan and South Korea, the costs of draining the cesspit of communism will be huge:

South Koreans have paid close attention to the price tag of German unification. The proportional burden on South Korea, some studies have found, would be two and a half times greater than on West Germany after it absorbed the former East Germany. Studies have found that it would cost more than two trillion dollars over thirty years, raise taxes for six decades and require that ten per cent of the South’s gross domestic product be spent in the North for the foreseeable future. (ch. 22, pg. 199)

The North Korean system has been as efficient at immiseration as the South Korean has been at enrichment: “South Korea’s economy is thirty-eight times larger than the North’s; its international trade volume is two hundred and twenty-four times larger” (ibid., pg. 197). The peninsula of Korea has been like a huge experiment in economics and sociology, and the results are visible from outer space. At night, South Korea blazes with light and North Korea is blacked out, because of electricity shortages. Something similar is true of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. The Haitian side is stripped bare of vegetation and, like North Korea, Haiti is propped up by outside aid. But that Caribbean difference seems to have something to do with race: Haiti was the first black republic and showed the way for failed black Zimbabwe and failing black South Africa. The Korean peninsula is occupied by a single highly intelligent race: it’s the different systems that explain why one is a dazzling success and the other an abject failure.

The Korean peninsula viewed from outer space

North vs South Korea

The border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic

Haiti vs the Dominican Republic

But this book describes how success in the south comes with a price. South Korea’s “obession with achievement” has harmed its society: “Although the suicide rate in most other wealthy countries peaked in the early 1980s, it continues to climb in South Korea, doubling since 2000” (ch. 22, pg. 201). Paradoxically, Shin coped better with life in a slave-labour camp than many of his contemporaries in the free and affluent South: he felt no inclination to kill himself because suffering was normal to him. Never having known a better life, he didn’t compare his present with his past: it had always been bad and seemed as though it always would be. He didn’t think about escape until he befriended a new arrival in the camp, Park Yong Chul, who “had lived abroad”, had a “well-connected life”, and “knew senior people in the North Korean government” (ch. 13, pg. 113). Park’s stories about the outside world gave Shin a point of comparison: “He suddenly understand where he was and what he was missing. Camp 14 was no longer home: it was an abhorrent cage” (ibid., pg. 122). The abhorrence of the cage is revealed by a vignette that isn’t in itself very horrific. It’s a small thing that symbolizes a lot:

In the middle of a night shift on the floor of the factory, Park alarmed Shin by bursting into song.

“Hey! What do you think you are doing?” Shin asked, fearing that a foreman might hear.

“Singing,” Park said.

“Stop at once,” Shin told him.

Shin had never sung a song. His only exposure to music had been on the farm, when trucks with loudspeakers played military marching music while prisoners picked weeds. To Shin, singing seemed unnatural and insanely risky. (ch. 13, pg. 119)

Park did not survive the escape attempt: he was killed trying to pass the camp’s electrified outer fence. The weight of his corpse “pulled down the bottom strand of wire” (ch. 15, pg. 134), creating a small gap, and Shin was able to crawl through, using the corpse “as a kind of insulating pad”. He still suffered severe electric burns and he knew that his father, still in the camp, would be punished for his escape. Readers familiar with World War Two escape stories will know that escapees found it difficult to pass undetected once they were out among civilians. Shin didn’t: North Korea is so poor and short of everyday materials that poorly dressed, half-starved slave-labourers don’t attract attention when they escape. He eventually found his way across the northern border to China, which is communist but not a slave-state, although it employs slave-labour in its Gulag, the Laogai. It still bears some responsibility for the horrors of North Korea, however, because it props the regime up as a “buffer” against South Korea. This means that it sometimes deports North Korean refugees and tries to stop them seeking asylum in foreign embassies. But Shin successfully found sanctuary in the South Korean consulate in Shanghai. He’s now in America, but still well aware that children in North Korea continue to live as he once did:

Eating rats not only filled empty stomachs, it was essential for survival. Their flesh could help prevent pellagra, a sometimes fatal disease that was rampant in the camps, especially in the winter. Prisoners with pellagra, the result of a lack of protein and niacin in their diets, suffered weakness, skin lesions, diarrhoea and dementia. It was a frequent cause of death. (ch. 1, pg. 27)

This book is short and easy to read, in one sense. In another sense, it isn’t. It has lots of unpleasant stories, but it isn’t atrocity porn and it seems trustworthy. North Korea is a sick state and a sick joke and Escape from Camp 14 is a good introduction to a bad place. For more history and more horror, I recommend one of the books Harden lists in his acknowledgments: Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2010). It’s also useful to remember that there have always been lots of politicians, academics, and journalists in the West who hope that they’ll be able to try Marx’s recipes too. In fact, they’ve already cooked up some tasty totalitarianism and hope to cook up a lot more. I quoted Trotsky at the beginning. Here’s some Nietzsche to end with:

In the doctrine of socialism there is hidden, rather badly, a “will to negate life”; the human beings or races who think up such a doctrine must be bungled. Indeed, I should wish that a few great experiments might prove that in a socialist society life negates itself, cuts off its own roots. The earth is large enough and man still sufficiently unexhausted; hence such a practical instruction and demonstratio ad absurdum would not strike me as undesirable, even if it were gained and paid for with a tremendous expenditure of human lives. (The Will to Power, Book One: European Nihilism, #125, translated by Walter Kaufmann)

Nietzsche wrote that in 1885. In 2012, the demonstratio ad absurdum and the tremendous expenditure go on in the slave-state of North Korea.

Read Full Post »