Wednesday, May 4, 2011


A man lives near the Tumen River, the border between China and North Korea. He gathers ginseng to sell and also has a small farm. His solitary life is interrupted by the increasing numbers of people who cross the river into China to find food or perhaps a new life. One is a prostitute that he now prefers at the brothel he visits once a month when he takes his ginseng to market. Another is a child who could be the prostitute's daughter. The understated prose of this novella belies the tragedy of the North Korean refugees. The only person's name mentioned in the book is Mrs. Wong, the madam of the brothel, and all of her employees are known as Mrs. Wong as well. When she feels that she can no longer harbor the woman that the ginseng hunter favors, Mrs. Wong offers to sell the woman to him. Although tempted, he dreads the further disruption that this addition to his household will cause. In the meantime, the prostitute disappears, and the ginseng hunter undergoes a fruitless search for her in the places that she has mentioned in the tales of her past. The book is rife with symbolism, not all of which I can probably interpret correctly. One is the absence of names and the assignment of one name to many women. Perhaps this is indicative of the loss of identity or even of the North Koreans' humanity. Another obvious symbol is the ginseng root itself, whose age partly determines its value, but more importantly, must be extricated from the earth in a very painstaking manner so that it is completely intact. This says something to me about the fragility and value of human life. The ginseng hunter's life is certainly broken, cut off from personal relationships, and this disconnection has rendered him emotionally torn about how to handle the unwanted responsibilities that have cropped up. Or the author could be saying something about how the North Koreans are being uprooted, severing connections with family and friends, to avoid starvation. There's also a parable in which the ginseng hunter as a child painted the backs of 2 large ants, one blue and one red. Later he dug into the colony, fruitlessly trying to find them again, only to have them reappear much later when he know longer expected to see them again. He obviously holds out hope that the prostitute will reappear in the same manner.

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