I don’t throw around adjectives like ‘extraordinary’ very often, but this book has earned it. In Order to Live is the extraordinary (there ya go) autobiography of Yeonmi Park.
Park was born in North Korea when foreign aid to the country was beginning to dry up and it began its inevitable slide towards famine. She tells, in stark and brutal detail, of life under a totalitarian regime whose leaders live like kings while everyone else starves. It’s one thing reading about it in the newspapers, but when you’re living it through the eyes of an excellent writer, then the whole idea of North Korea takes on a completely different perspective. What surprised me most about the book were the little pockets of dark humour. Here’s a question from a North Korean school lesson:
If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many American bastards have you killed?
Eventually, Park’s family is faced with a choice: flee North Korea or starve to death. Park and her mother make their way to China, where they fall into the hands of people traffickers. Pretty harrowing reading.
It struck me how they were both willing to believe almost anything they were told by these people, but then I remembered they’d been conditioned to believe whatever they were told since birth. This makes North Koreans, in their desperation, especially vulnerable to traffickers and prostitution rings.
The two women are bought and sold until they eventually make their way to South Korea. The story doesn’t end there; freedom is especially hard on those who’ve only known some form of captivity their whole lives. Even the most basic things, like telling someone your favourite food when asked, can be something of a trauma.
It’s one hell of a read and compares well to Escape From Camp 14, which I also thoroughly enjoyed – though perhaps ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word.
In Order To Live is beautifully written, which I wasn’t expecting from a biography of this nature. It flows well, the language is simple and wonderfully descriptive, and as I’ve said, it is occasionally very funny. The best biography I’ve read so far? Quite possibly.
Ten out of ten.