North Korea has set off another round of speculation as to what life in North Korea is really like.
All we ever see on television are the appalling pictures of starving children, almost empty roads, grey buildings and grand military displays or "celebrations". We never see what life is really like on a daily basis. That is left to our imaginations.
I am sure some people believe "it cannot be as bad as all that or people would rebel", others are appalled and wonder why people do not try to do something about their situation. There are still others who do know something about life in North Korea and know how difficult it will be to do anything. They may even understand the tear apparently being shed for the death of a man who was apparently a ruthless dictator.
Last night one of our neighbours said to me, "I wonder if there are even any books written about North Korea."
I knew he did not mean academic tomes. That would not be what he was looking to read. He has plenty of that sort of material to read in his own area. He was thinking "fiction" because he and his wife are going on holiday. He had come to borrow a few books from us.
I could only think of one author, "James Church". I do not own any of his books but I have read two. They were paperback donations to the local library.
Church has apparently written four books about "Inspector 'O' ". They are detective stories. They are not stories about a rebel. 'O' is a loyal member of the communist party. It is also suggested he has a relative somewhere high up in the Party. In the first two books he moves relatively freely within the restrictions imposed by the State - although he is always conscious of the surveillance by others - and is trusted to travel inside the country. Despite that the atmosphere is strange.
There is an almost overwhelming feel of being stifled in Church's books. He does not criticise the regime. He does not need to. He is just, I believe, trying to give a sense of the place as he believes it must be like.
I have not read the last two books. I am unlikely to do so unless they appear on the library shelves and I am short of light bedtime reading. All the same I am glad I did read the first two. Church may not have a very accurate picture of life in North Korea but I suspect it is far more accurate than many writers could manage. What he conveys very successfully is the sense of not being able to do certain things - even for a man who clearly has the right to do more than most.
He conveys the corruption, the lack of food, the need to obtain permission to travel, the problems with actually travelling, the constant watchfulness of everyone - the overall discomfort of daily life. North Korea is almost certainly all those things and much more.
Even when it frustrates him 'O' accepts it. He knows what he cannot do - and the consequences of doing the "wrong" thing. 'O' is shown as being better informed than some of his fellow North Koreans but his access to information is severely restricted. It hampers him.
It explains much about why people inside North Korea do not rebel. They know what they cannot do. They know the consequences of not doing the "right" thing. They do not have the knowledge to rebel or the physical and mental energy to do so.
There was another death reported yesterday, that of the writer Vaclav Havel, one time President of the Czech Republic. Havel was a reluctant politician but I heard him described by his biographer as "an honest writer". A Czech migrant to Australia once described Havel to me as "true to himself and to others". It was clear that he admired Havel. If she sheds tears over Havel's death they will, I am sure , be genuine. There will be genuine grief in the Czech Republic - and elsewhere - over his death.
Perhaps people in North Korea do genuinely believe they are grieving over the death of their "beloved leader". Perhaps though they are actually grieving for themselves. They just do not realise it yet.