“How did someone created by one reality begin to operate by the rules of another?”
The Sorcerer of Pyongyang is an excellent work of literary fiction by novelist Marcel Theroux. This is the first time I’ve read his work, but it will not be the last. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy; this book is for sale now.
I am drawn to this novel initially because of its setting. Nobody sets a book in North Korea! I am fascinated. Then I learn that the author is the son of Paul Theroux, the veteran travel journalist whose work, by chance, I have only just recently found and read. So there are two reasons for me to start this book, but once I begin, I realize that in the future, I will read whatever this author writes, regardless of where it’s set or who his relatives are.
The author’s notes indicate that Theroux has experience in North Korea, and this informs his work here. This book, remarkably enough, is based on a true story.
Our protagonist is Jun-su, a child growing up in poverty in rural North Korea. He and his parents believe the official explanation for the widespread poverty and malnutrition, which is that the blockade imposed by the United States and other Western nations has created the situation. Children in Jun-su’s class sometimes fall asleep at their desks, because they are starving. Part of the school day is also spent doing hard labor for the State. It doesn’t occur to Jun-su, or to anyone he knows, to question the misery imposed upon him, because it’s happening to everyone in the village, and they don’t go anywhere or see anyone outside it, so they assume the whole nation is suffering in the same manner.
Then comes the day when Jun-su falls ill with rheumatic fever. He misses a lot of school, and his teacher, Kang, visits him at home, bringing acupuncture needles to help with the pain. It is during this time that he is introduced to a game his teacher calls “The House of Possibility,” but which is actually Dungeons and Dragons. This game will be both a blessing and a curse to Jun-su for the rest of his life.
Because the illness permanently damages his heart, Jun-su cannot participate in labor with his classmates, and so instead, he becomes a poet, and he wins a contest and briefly meets the Dear Leader. He is sent to study at an elite institution far from home, and his eyes are opened in a number of ways. Soon he sees that not only is not every North Korean impoverished, but some live lives of unimaginable luxury. The corruption has been part of his entire life, but he can only just now see that.
Theroux does a fine job of developing Jun-su, but he does an even better one with setting. We can see what a hall of mirrors is involved in living in a Stalinist nation, where no civil liberties exist and unspoken, unwritten rules prevail alongside those that are codified. For example, the Dear Leader is so exalted that a person can be in big trouble if their home burns down and they don’t rescue his portrait (and that portrait WILL be hanging in the house,) and likewise, someone that sells hot food had better be sure there are no pictures of the Dear Leader in the newspaper he uses to wrap fish.
My one concern is that the story might degenerate into an anti-Communist diatribe, but that doesn’t happen. This is an outstanding novel, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to you.