A decade ago a burly, charming American who had visited North Korea only once wrote a compelling novel about that country, The Orphan Master's Son. As a feat of imagination, secondary research and literary bravado, Adam Johnson's book rivals Martin's Cruz Smith's account of three murders beside an icy pond within a city he had never then visited, Gorky Park.
Now Marcel Theroux (son of Paul and brother of Louis) has set a tale - an adventure story mixed with a morality tale - in the Hermit Kingdom. He begins in 1991, the period known by locals (as any decade could have been) as the Arduous March years. The reader is introduced to two stereotypical lefties, one who finds North Korea's weird brand of socialism worthy of study and his son, afflicted with the name, Fidel. They are given mere walk-on parts; their function is to leave a guide to Dungeons and Dragons behind in a hotel room.
Who thought that de-coding a children's game could provoke such incendiary consequences? A benighted North Korean might have been more readily aroused by Animal Farm, The Gulag Archipelago or Utopia. Nonetheless, the arcana of treasures and dragons, trolls and elves becomes for Theroux's hero, Jun-su, "a celestial object" and virtually "the centrepiece of a new religion".
More prosaically, Jun-su survives a period of mass starvation (or "food ration downturn", as the regime had it). After enduring dobbing at school (through the Daily Life Unity Critique) and university (by the Thought Examination Committee), Jun-su is dispatched to a labour camp for nine years. His days of broiling rats and chewing tree bark are then replaced, courtesy of Dungeons and Dragons, by opulence and indolence among the spoiled, tainted DPRK elite.
All that story has a whiff of fable or fantasy about it. Dungeons and Dragons itself is sometimes a parable, occasionally an insight into character, every now and again a diversion. An odd twist is inserted towards the end, when Theroux moves to the first person, talking about having met the two main characters in the story as well as having done copious research.
Jun-su sees through the cruelties and idiocies of the North Korean regime, but only tentatively, gradually and diffidently. More implausible episodes are offset by Theroux's thorough accounts of the symptoms of starvation or the chronic, pervasive suspicion of others inherent in a totalitarian system. That blending of a monstrous dystopia with humdrum detail was surely also critical to the success of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Revealing an ending is a sin for reviewers; Theroux's conclusion rounds out a melancholy tale about a miserable country.
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