De mortuis nil nisi bunkum, as they say, and in this week of deaths it’s often been a job to tell the pearls from the balls. Unsurprisingly, the seldom missable Pyongyang Times has churned out snuff-guff prolifically of late, marking the dear leader Kim Jong Il’s passing ‘from a sudden attack of illness’, later amplified as myocardial infarction. The PRK has been convulsed by a spasm of grief, with North Korean telly screening continuous-loop footage of women rending their garments on a (stationary) escalator. Kim’s mortal coil lies in state like a beached dugong, in a glass case oddly reminiscent of Benedict XVI’s Popemobile. It’s rumoured that the corpse, like Kim Il Sung’s, will be whisked off to Moscow for embalming if Pyongyang can scrape together the dosh.
To judge by the public reaction, North Koreans seem little consoled by the Times’s assurances that ‘the great comrade Kim Jong Il will be immortal’, and that the 27-year-old heir presumptive, Kim Jong Un, ‘another great person produced by Korea’, is ‘identical to Comrade Kim Jong Il’ – so in fact the senior Kim is still with us, in the way of the reincarnated Dalai Lama. Other pages from the PT, amid the paeans to over-fulfilment of output norms and Japan-bashing, suggest that the great comrade is as active as ever. One shot shows Kim in his trademark shades and what looks like a brown rat-fur hat, visiting a knitwear factory; another has him appraising some gourds. Meanwhile, preparations for his birthday on 16 February are in full swing. The PT reports that committees have been formed to run a whip-round for Kim’s big day as far afield as Ukraine and Egypt, where you might think they have enough on their plate already.
No-bitchery taboos also reign in the free-speaking west. Lampooning the estate-agent tropes makes for a passable parlour game. Adolf Hitler: ‘a conviction politician of energy and strategic vision, tireless in pursuing the best interests of the Volk’. Ted Bundy: ‘resourceful and self-reliant, with a passionate, lifelong interest in human anatomy’. There are exceptions. One of the names on this week’s mortuary roll was Donald Neilson’s. The ‘Black Panther’ serial killer, who’s died in Norwich jail, has had a milder version of the Myra Hindley treatment, but then she was a woman, and female murderers always get a warm send-off from the red tops (‘Rot in Hell’ etc.).
Václav Havel has had a slightly more nuanced reception than Kim or Neilson. His obits have been leavened with mention of his penchant for moral didacticism and even his colostomy, though his spirited backing for the 2003 Iraq invasion has got less airplay.
The same couldn’t be said of Christopher Hitchens, who has also received mixed valedictions, though both detractors and admirers seem to agree that Hitch was a piss-artist of Herculean stamina, the point of contention being whether this adds lustre to his aura or a nail to his coffin. As with lamas and the late dear leader, the search is on for his reincarnation. In an otherwise measured appraisal, Jason Cowley in the New Statesman notes with apparent regret that the old bruiser leaves ‘followers and disciples but no heir apparent’.
Hitchens’s moral courage failed him when faced with the possibility that he’d called something wrong. On Iraq, he segued fluently between saying that Saddam should be whacked because he would turn out to have WMD, that the absence of WMD was due to a cover-up, and that WMD weren’t the point. In this he occupied a world not so different from the Pyongyang Times, which barely falls short of imputing divinity to the leader – for a while state propaganda made out that the late Kim had been spared the need to defecate. Last year, in a debate with Tony Blair, Hitchens described the kingdom of God, plausibly enough, as ‘a divine North Korea’ because of its moral totalitarianism. And, as with the terrestrial version, it can be fiendishly hard to blag a visa out.