Cold Call

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Young Kyun Lim

Dial H for highbrow Kim's book is a deft departure from espionage norms

So do you answer, or let it ring? That's the question a 42-year-old North Korean agent, alias Kim Ki-yong, grapples with for most of the 24 hours that elapse — hour by hour, as in the television series 24 — in Kim Young-ha's Your Republic Is Calling You, a 2006 spy novel now out in English translation.

As the book begins, it's the morning of Tuesday, March 15, 2005. Kim Ki-yong opens an e-mail at his office in Seoul, where he's lived contentedly since swimming ashore from a North Korean sub 21 years earlier. These days, he's a foreign-film importer with a teenage daughter and unsuspecting wife of 15 years. The e-mail is coded and cryptic, alluding to a haiku by Basho about jarred octopuses and aquatic dreams. But to Kim the message is clear: Abort mission, destroy evidence, get back to Pyongyang. You've got a day. Or else.

Sounds like the perfect setup for a cliffhanger, and we get plenty of potboiler trappings: stolen identities, faked passports and decoy Bibles with guns cradled in their hollowed pages. Plus a shadowy supporting cast, among them a prophetic fortune-teller, a dirty cop, a red-caped subway preacher who harangues straphangers with eschatological divination, and a bald, nose-picking porn addict with bad credit who just might be the key to the whole mystery. Which is this: After a decade of no contact with his North Korean handlers, why would Kim suddenly be called back? Has his identity been leaked? Is the South on to him? Or is he being reeled in for punishment?

If there's a filmic quality to all this, it's because movies are pivotal to Kim Young-ha's work, both as talking points and as movers of plot. In Kim's first book, the perverse novella I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, the narrator, a ghastly novelist who gets his stories from disturbed persons whom he befriends and whose suicides he abets, meets the young woman whose demise is at the center of the book at a screening of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. In Your Republic, Kim Ki-yong remembers the mental illness that drove his mother to kill herself by thinking of The Shining. And Disney cartoons and Steve McQueen reruns (as well as afternoons at Lotteria burger shops) have helped him assimilate so thoroughly that by the time we meet him, two decades later, he's just an inconspicuously "average middle-aged South Korean man, his belly round, his chest puny, and his arms jiggly," who drives a Hyundai, holds dear his iPod, carries a Samsonite briefcase and quaffs Heineken and Americanos. He is less chiseled Bond-like hero than erudite belletrist, alluding as nonchalantly to Rage Against the Machine and Bart Simpson as he does 19th century radical French mathematician Évariste Galois and René Magritte, whose surrealist painting Empire of Light is used to visually frame a scene in the novel's closing pages, and gives the book its Korean title.

Likewise, for all its noirish strokes, Your Republic is not so much adventure thriller as psychological exposé, both of a man caught between dire fates and of a South Korea numbed by smirking consumerism. Absent are blood and guts and the vrooming freeway hunts of espionage convention. The book's most breathless sequence, save a brief ambush by South Korean forces of a North Korean special-ops unit near the end, is a bungled foot chase through Seoul's Coex mall. Gone, too, are the alluring Mata Haris. Instead there's Kim Ki-yong's dumpy wife Ma-ri, a coarse, crow-footed Volkswagen saleswoman addicted to chocolate and herself. In a revolting sex scene set at a love motel and written with excruciating, pornographic precision, we watch as Ma-ri gets tangled up with two 20-year-olds, scuffed of soul and trousers. So what's better: Life with such a wife or life in the country of your birth? When the Dear Leader calls, you may not like what he has to say, but at least it focuses the mind. As for you, dear reader, you could do worse than pick up the novel and eavesdrop.