Saturday, December 31, 2011

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot?

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

When I watched the crowds of mourners screaming at Kim Jong Il's grotesque funeral, I thought of a scene from the Vincent Price horror flick Cry of the Banshee in which a group of women are loudly mourning some dead royalty and Price asks a servant, "How much did you pay the keeners?" When the servant tells him the amount, Price says, "Make sure they mourn until dawn."

On 19 December I noted the coincidence of the deaths of two world leaders who couldn't have been more different, the "glorious leader" of North Korea and Václav Havel, poet, playwright, dissident, and the first president of the Czech Republic. If their deaths had their different meanings, their funerals, while on a comparable scale and having some superficial resemblances, were utterly different.

I heard one North Korea expert on the BBC comment that the hysterics of the mourners in Pyongyang (a singularly sad city) were probably genuine. But the official video footage of the event shown around the world gave away the game: one cameraman on the street approached the crowd and the front row surged towards him. The following shot, from the cameraman's vantage point, showed the crowd up close, with every one of them wailing on cue in perfect unison. Their faces bore a striking resemblance to those of the damned in medieval illustrations of hell.

I no longer try to imagine what those people must be thinking. They have been told all their lives that they are in heaven, which is in fact much closer to being hell. At the time of Kim Il-Sung's death, I recall listening to a U.S. Navy admiral say that the people of North Korea were going to be very angry when they found out how they've been lied to all this time. But are they really, living in their self-generated twilight zone, unaware of the extent of the lies?

A genuinely solemn occasion was the funeral for Havel in Prague. Watching the cortège as it advanced slowly past the thousands of ordinary people who had come voluntarily to pay their last respects to a genuinely great and sincerely beloved leader brought tears to my eyes, rather than the horrible compulsory grief on parade in Pyongyang. In a typically bizarre twist, the North Korean news agency released video of people shedding tears for Havel. Perhaps they needed warming up for the funeral of their dear (feared) leader?

At least Havel's funeral made me recall the beautiful (if overexposed) words from the Auden poem the first of "Two Songs for Hedli Anderson". The photo above, of an old Czech man playing his violin on a Prague street, speaks volumes more of genuine grief than the tens of thousands of North Koreans keening in chorus.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

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