Talarigo (The Pearl Diver, 2004) ironically focuses his gifts on the effects of a ruthless political regime.
While the narrative is set at the turn of the 21st century, it has the feel of being set in the distant past. The title character is Chinese, though both his father and grandfather were North Korean, so he doesn’t fit comfortably in either culture. The hunter’s life moves slowly and is arranged around the movement of the seasons and the delicate hunt for ginseng, a commodity, but around him swirls a political climate of violence that gradually begins to fill up his world. Once a month he visits a brothel in Yanji, and on one of his visits he meets a North Korean prostitute. She brings with her a tale of suffering that both intrigues and frightens the ginseng hunter, and he vows to help her. In fact, the brothel’s madam offers to sell her to him. Ironically, once this offer is made he realizes that “the price for her, ounce for ounce, is so much less than what I hunt and sell” (ginseng being valuable and expensive). Behind her suffering—and behind the novel—lies the looming shadow of Kim Jong Il, the “Great Leader,” whose image adorns badges and whose repressive policies have far-reaching effects on characters on both sides of the Tumen River. North Korean soldiers who patrol this border need to earn that post by proving their unquestioning loyalty to the regime, but one of them defects and throws in his lot with the ginseng hunter after the hunter agonizingly tries to help a young girl, an innocent victim of the brutal kill-now-and-ask-questions-later policy.
This is a quiet and poetically written novel, but the painfully slow pace precludes deep involvement on the part of the reader.