North Korea is in part fascinating because it is mysterious. Cut off from viewing eyes not by geographical remoteness but by political design, the state and the lives within it seem strange and bizarre to observers. The mystery of the hermit state is part of its myth, which is cultivated by North Korea’s leadership, as well as a by-product of its peculiar circumstances. Outsiders can enter only irregularly. Western journalists cannot report on North Korea as they might any other country. Outside analysts can only guess at the bare facts of its economy, its politics and its culture. Continue reading
In the West, North Korea used to be a punchline. The hermit state was known to be repressive and its leaders were seen to be deeply cruel. But amid stories of man-made famines and mass starvation, prison systems and summary executions, Western journalists found something else to write about. Continue reading
Jonathan Spence’s book The Death of Woman Wang is an entrancing assessment of provincial China. It weaves together the stories of individuals, some of high rank, some freshly rescued from obscurity, with those of myth and legend, creating an absorbing, enriching portrait of a nation and of an era. In The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, Spence takes a slightly different tack. Again his subject is China, but this time, rather than attempting only to look at the country from within, he incorporates the perspective of those who came from without. The eponymous subject of this work was a Jesuit priest from Italy, a keen proselytiser, and one of the pioneering Western missionaries sent to China to spread Christianity among its vast population. Continue reading
Microhistory can largely be defined as it sounds. It is not grand; it is not grandiose. It is small and intimate and its subjects are often obscure.
The subjects of more famous works of microhistory, for example Martin Guerre, the focus of an excellent book by Natalie Zemon Davis, are plucked from the great mass of the unknown, or have their stories transfigured from myth to something resembling reality.
Such stories are deeply personal in every case. There is something in them which avoids the coldness of even the most effective biography and the rigid, unfeeling rosiness of hagiography. They are personal. Thus microhistory can illuminate ideas about personhood, self-knowledge, and self-perception in years past. And it can, in the way all literature has the potential to do, tell us a more than a little about ourselves. Continue reading