Archived article

The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo

My first reaction to Jeff Talarigo’s second novel The Ginseng Hunter was that the guy’s got guts. Here, after all, is an American author writing about quotidian existence on the Chinese-North Korean border in a novel populated with Chinese, Korean-Chinese and North Korean (no American spies here), a novel about love, life, horrible deprivation and communing with nature, all from the perspective of a middle-aged Korean-Chinese farmer. Talarigo did admittedly live in Japan for 15 years, but the proximity is geographical only.

The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo
The Ginseng Hunter, Jeff Talarigo (Anchor Books, April 2009)

My second reaction was one of considerable awe: Talarigo writes sparingly, reminding me of Yu Hua in his early novels of To Live and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant—so sparingly that The Ginseng Hunter is only 175 pages, and so hauntingly of this bleak existence that it seems almost lyrical.

People who know the region will have to determine whether the novel is accurate, but it rings true, no mean accomplishment given its subject matter. The North Korea of the novel is reminiscent of The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Kang Chon-Hwan’s memoir, while the scenery could describe that part of the Russian Far East I know, just over the other border.

The deceptively simple story is of a simple middle-aged farmer, who lives alone, cut off from the world, and who communes better with the ginseng he “hunts” in the forests. Once each month he travels to the nearest town to sell his ginseng and visit the local brother, where he spends the night with women all called “Ms. Wong”. He falls in love with one who is a North Korean refugee. His difficult life and her terrible one unfold as they get to know each other. He experiences love and it changes him.

It would be easy to read The Ginseng Hunter as a book “about” North Korea and the truly atrocious regime there, and the injustices inflicted on those merely trying to survive. But Talarigo’s great accomplishment is the novel rises above mere message; the characters are never allowed to degenerate into symbols.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.