José Luís Peixoto
In April of 2012 the Portuguese writer José Luís Peixoto traveled to North Korea, as part of a fifteen-day "Kim Il-Sung's 100th Birthday Ultimate Mega Tour." The result of this trip was his travel memoir, Dentro do Segredo (Inside the Secret), in which he recounts the stark contradictions of a highly militarized and extremely poor country, a country where carefully regulated speech imposes the regime's reality through fear and conformity, and yet also provides a mask behind which, perhaps, individuals can hide. This is travel writing of a high order that offers a window into one of the most isolated countries in the world and our stereotypes about it.
Ninth Letter will be serializing excerpts from Inside the Secret (translated by Robin Paterson) over the next five weeks on our website. Each excerpt is accompanied by photos that Peixoto took during his travels in North Korea, and they appear here for the first time anywhere.
"I HEAR AND I FORGET. I SEE AND I REMEMBER. I DO AND I UNDERSTAND." I kept reminding myself of the words of Confucius throughout my time in North Korea. They seemed loaded with a mysterious meaning that gained new profundity with every passing day. After a certain point, it almost seemed to me that these words explained everything.
It was my last morning and I was packing my bags at the Yanggakdo Hotel, tucking Don Quixote in between some dirty T-shirts, hoping to spare him any indignities when we crossed the border. I had the television on. They were showing a repeat of Kim Jong-un's speech. It had already been shown many times.
Seven microphones ranged in front of him, the Respected Leader read out a text in a monotonous tone, defeating even the musicality of the Korean language. Nothing he said was new. By that time I already knew that he'd simply repeated what the regime had been saying since his grandfather's time. However the mere fact of him speaking at all was itself remarkable. He had a voice. His father, Kim Jong-il, hadn't once spoken in public during his seventeen years of absolute power. The North Korean people had heard his voice only once. On 25th April 1992, before coming to power, he'd said:
Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People's Army!
On the bus, making our way through the streets of Pyongyang to the train station, I felt a sense both of nostalgia and of wanting to move on.
Nostalgia because I knew it was very unlikely I would ever return. This realization confronted me with the limits of my own existence, with all the things that I wouldn't be able to do, or do again, during the rest of my lifetime. Also, at the same time, here were all these people living their enclosed lives, completely unaware of so much around them, trying to convince themselves that they lived in the most advanced country in the world. These people were still right here in front of me. Soon they wouldn't be, but I knew I'd remember their faces even when I was far away. Even as I write this I can still see them.
Wanting to move on because I'd had enough of control freakery, of the warped logic which that particular cult used as its lodestar, because I'd had enough of fear. My palms itched as I remembered that in a few hours they would give me back my mobile phone and I'd be able to phone my sons, send messages to my friends, whenever I felt like it. I missed the internet, advertising, traffic.
At that moment, China was the symbol of freedom, liberty. Arriving in China meant arriving in the free world.
Time passed, until the moment when I found myself standing alone with a border guard in a railway carriage, stopped at Sinuiju station.
The guard was looking at the photos on my camera. Most of my records of the journey were held in those photos. The expression on the guard's face was stern. Then, for no apparent reason, he stopped. Slowly, he raised his head and fixed me with a clear-eyed gaze.
The moment must have lasted for something like five seconds, but it seemed much longer. Enough for me to imagine why he was staring at me like that, to feel the temptation to look away. But I resisted, leaving him wondering the same thing.
Then he smiled and handed me back the camera. That was that.
We crossed over to Dandong on the Bridge of Sino-Korean Friendship. Before 1990, it had gone by the more practical name of the Yalu River Bridge.
Beside this bridge was another one. It stopped in the middle of the river, the rest destroyed by American bombing raids in 1950. I went there the following day, walking to where it came to an abrupt end: steel twisted and torn by the force of the explosions.
However that was the next day. Just after I crossed the border, I looked up at the big illuminated signs in Chinese. I had just been given back my mobile phone and was waiting for it to pick up a signal. I wanted to send text messages to my sisters. I wanted to tell them that I had left North Korea. I wanted to set my mother's mind at ease.
My travel companions were carrying straight on to Beijing. I said goodbye to them and hurried out of the station.
The immense pleasure of simply crossing a street: nobody behind me, no surveillance. You can't underestimate the value of breathing deeply.
In Dandong, I took full advantage of being able to choose once again what to eat. That night I went to a bar where a band, with electric guitar and bass, played Chinese pop music. Then I went to a nightclub where the walls and ceiling were completely covered in lights that randomly changed color, where the DJ was always interrupting the Chinese techno music with enthusiastic exhortations, and where I and everyone else swayed about on a dance floor built on a bed of springs. Just trying to keep your balance was in itself a form of dancing.
Next morning I went running. I ran past a pickup truck selling slabs of tofu, past a group of women performing exercises with swords, past infernal, chaotic traffic. I needed these stimulants. Still sweating before my shower, a proper shower with decent water pressure, I privately, silently closed my eyes and gave thanks for them.
Later that morning, I took a boat trip along the Yalu River. Everyone was peering through binoculars at the North Korean side. Having just come from there the day before, I was looking at the people who were looking. A woman with a head-piece microphone, equally uninterested in the view, was selling out-of-circulation North Korean banknotes and tourist souvenirs on a tray: nail clippers, pencils, wallets, key-rings and the like. A guide was explaining in Chinese details about North Korea that I couldn't understand. While they listened to him, everyone looked over towards that side of the river.
The Great Wall of China came right down to the border near Dandong. There was a particular point along the wall where the two countries came closest together and where a lot of tourists had come to stare over at the other side. Only a narrow stream about ten yards wide separated the two countries. A wire fence surrounded North Korea and you could clearly see people working in the fields on the other side. They had a tractor but even so, even from this distance, there was no hiding the poverty. Maybe that's what was going through the minds of all the Chinese tourists taking photos.
There were little stalls selling hard-boiled eggs and cheap imitation badges of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
I climbed the wall. At the point closest to North Korea, for five yuan you could hire some binoculars. There was a queue.
I didn't bother. Apart from the wall itself, what I found much more startling was the way everyone walked freely, carrying bottles of soft drinks, taking photos with their mobile phones. Children playing with plastic toys. The ease with which people talked to each other.
I'd decided to go to North Korea, and I'd been.
In the words of Lao Tse, writing in the sixth century BC, "a good traveller has no fixed plan, and is not intent on arriving."
It's so easy to compare life to a journey. It makes so much sense.
Journey or life, this is where we always end up. As if standing on top of a mountain, we can see all around us. This is the place where everything happens, and there is serenity in knowing that. It's your job, joyfully, freely, to make the most of it.
If you are reading these words, it's because you're alive.
--translated by Robin Paterson
© José Luís Peixoto
José Luís Peixoto is one of the most important and critically acclaimed contemporary Portuguese writers. He has won the Jose Saramago Literary Award, the Calamo Award, the Salerno Libro d' Europa Award, and he has been shortlisted for many international literary awards, including the Impac Dublin Literary Award, and Prix Femina. His novels have been translated in twenty languages, and three novels, The Implacable Order of Things, The Piano Cemetery, and Antidote, have been published in English translation. His novel The Antidote, published in 2003, is a collaboration with the Portuguese goth metal band Moonspell, and is based on their album of the same name.
Download this excerpt of Inside the Secret as a pdf