Review: The Limits of the World by Andrew Raymond Drennan
News From Somewhere
It’s late 2011 in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Han is a recently promoted officer of North Korea’s Ministry of Communications about to begin another assignment as a tour guide for the country’s Western visitors. These stage-managed encounters with foreigners only deepen his acute sense of loneliness and encourage one very dangerous vice. Among his meagre possessions are items so threatening to the state they could earn him imprisonment and execution: Han reads Western books.
The tourists arriving from the outside world bring their own secrets too. Ben and Hal are undercover documentary-makers who think a scoop in North Korea will be easier than another war zone. Han’s occasional moments of candour lead them to suspect he’s their best chance of capturing the true face of the Hermit Kingdom, if, that is, they are willing to risk his life.
Andrew Raymond Drennan’s ambitious third novel is a welcome variation on the ever popular theme of dystopia. If readers ever tire of imagining nightmare societies in which the poor starve while feigning devotion to an absolute leader, they need only remember that twenty-five million people still call North Korea home. While books about this rogue state tend to feed the factual appetite, in common with Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master’s Son, Drennan shows that a deeply researched work of imagination can do more than report back.
Han is the perfect companion on our journey into this closed world precisely because he is one of us, a reader. Through him we see familiar books living precarious new lives: Austen, Conrad, Dickens and Kafka hide under a floorboard in his apartment like refugees, or explosives. On encountering Nineteen Eighty-Four, Han identifies with Winston Smith in ways we never could. He reads for pleasure and to know he is not alone, but when he finds himself radicalised in the company of a fellow reader, she is someone he surely cannot trust.
The novel’s unconventional chapter headings and occasionally mixed perspectives are the only hurdles to the story as it accelerates to thriller pace in its final act. At the heart of this lean and energetic novel is a rather beautiful meditation on loss. In a country where public grief is held in reserve for the passing of the Dear Leader, private grieving (like reading) is an act of resistance. Han has lost his parents and sister, yet is not authorised to mourn them. The journalists also carry complicated bereavements with them. Hal, a practicing Christian, fixates on footage he shot in Sudan of a mob killing a man he couldn’t save, while Ben is yet to process the loss of the beloved father who inspired him. These griefs forge a common humanity between them.
The title of the book alludes to Ludwig Wittgenstein: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” While physical boundaries can only be established or exceeded by force, works of language (like this one) reveal a world without borders, a true People’s Republic. In other words: books do not set us free, they remind us that we already are.
The Limits of the World by Andrew Raymond Drennan
Cargo, RRP £8.99, 266pp