The Kinship of Secrets

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, while I’ve been on leave this year to complete the revisions on a novel, I’ve also been serving as an “editor-at-large” for the website of Ninth Letter. Which means finding work that breaks out of the confines of our print magazine: video essays, multi-media collaborations, or serialization of work that pushes the borders of our length requirements.

Right now we’re running a five-part series of a long excerpt from Inside the Secret, a memoir of travel to North Korea by the Portuguese writer José Luís Peixoto (a winner of the Saramago Prize for his novel The Implacable Order of Things). The essay also includes beautifully unsettling photos he took while in the country that have never appeared anywhere else. Peixoto is a fine writer, and he is quite observant about the bleak playacting of the citizens of North Korea, especially when describing his visit to a bookstore, a grocery, and the rarity of a hamburger restaurant. His description of watching the paranoid dramatics of the country’s only TV channel is absolutely chilling.

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Elsewhere, though, Peixoto does what only the best writers can do—connect the foreign with one’s intimate self. Any decent writer can work up a good scene about a North Korean hamburger joint—the experience practically writes itself. But that’s seeing from the outside, keeping the North Koreans firmly in place as an Other. And certainly, all the lying and false claims of the country wear him down over the course of his trip. But in the 4th installment, Peixoto describes calling his family from the hotel, and now we see a first-rate writer in action, revealing what the best literature always does: making transparent what had been obscure.

He doesn’t want to upset his family during the phone conversation, and so he says everything is all right, though that hides a great deal of what he’s feeling. And he realizes that they are probably doing the same thing, that if something were really wrong, they wouldn’t tell him, because he’s so far away. They’re each keeping secrets. And then he says to the reader:

“We keep our secrets together with all the other things we don’t say. Up in that great big, shadowy attic there are things we don’t say because we’re afraid, because we’re ashamed, because we simply can’t; there are things we don’t say because we don’t know about them, really don’t know, even though they’re right there inside us. Secrets aren’t like that. They are there, we can visit them, observe them, know exactly the words to express them and, often, we want so much to tell them. But we choose not to.

“Our secrets are within us. Along with everything else that we know, we are made of our secrets. When we hold them in, when we are strong enough to contain them, they spread inside us. From within, they seep up through our skin. They keep on going until sometimes we catch sight of them when we turn around, or hear them in the silence. Then, at that moment, it’s not just our secrets that are inside us, it’s also we who are inside our secrets.”

Note the use of the first person plural, “we.” North Korea may seem like the most alien of places, but really, North Korean society is (among many other things) an institutionalization of a basic human impulse—we all keep secrets (secrets that are all too often capable of altering us). It’s secrecy and masking gone mad, yes, but in Peixoto’s view, the North Koreans are kin to us, and we are kin to them.

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