Identity is at the heart of this amazing novel, mainly set in post-perestroika Russia and Kazakhstan. The Koryo-saram are ethnic Koreans, people Stalin termed The Unreliable People, descendants of those who fled to Vladivostok from Korea, who were then deported to The Kazakh SSR by Stalin, and then after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, ended up living in Kazakhstan. They share history and stories from each of these places: Are they Korean, Kazakh or Russian?
Identity is explored through the story of Antonina, an art student in St Petersburg in the mid-1990s, just a few years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Antonina is enrolled in a high-end Art Academy, but feels drawn to the Centre of Nonconformist Art, where her friend Tatyana lives and works. Antonina is working on two exhibitions, one for her grades at the Academy, another an expression of her Koryo-saram identity designed to be a brief installation at the Centre. The theme of parallel lives and realities weaves through the story.
We first meet Antonina in the 1970s, when she is abducted from her bedroom by a mysterious woman, who tells her stories and teaches her dances as they travel on a train away from her home – a train that crosses the “screaming bridge” where the ghosts of those who died in the deportations roam “for eternity in search of their loved ones”. But the woman, Katerina, finds she can’t carry out her plan and sets Antonina on her journey of memory and mystery. Who was the woman? Did Antonina ever go on that train-ride with her? Whose are the stories and dances she knows?
The book centres on Antonina’s journey, but we also follow Katarina, and learn of the sad events of the Koryo-saram community in the late 1930s. Running through the parallel stories are lovers separated, actions regretted, children lost or abandoned. The shadow of the Soviet State falls heavily over events, the paranoia, the queuing, the suppression of individuality and identity, and the racism of state policy, a racism that emerges on a personal level once the mega-state loses its grip and ethnic independence emerges. Through the experiences of Antonina, the reader discovers, and is appalled by, the history of the Koryo-saram people.
The use of Antonina’s art is a nice way to express many of the themes of the novel, and provides a link between Antonina and her mother, a potter who makes ethnic pieces in Almaty, formerly Alma-Ata, and who sends parcels of clay to Antonina in St Petersburg. The centre-piece of Antonina’s creation for the Centre exhibition is made from frit, fused glass, that forms a rough surface that Tatyana is continually snagged by, Tatyana who is an embodiment of confused identity, who wants to be with Antonina. And it is at the Academy exhibition where we see another side to the rough Konstantin, the black marketeer with whom Antonina boards, when he arrives with a limp bouquet of tulips because they “are from Kazakhstan.”
The link between the two main characters and storylines is quite rapidly revealed, which on one level sits oddly. But on another level the resolution parallels the first meeting between Antonina and Katarina – fleeting and ghost-like. The first meeting led Antonina on a trajectory where we become part of her story, and the second meeting leads her to where we leave her to merge into the story of her people, the Koryo-saram,
The Unreliable People is full of interesting characters and tragic history. It is a history that makes the reader consider the plight of displaced people of all places and times, and to ponder the complexity of identity.