Merrimon Book Reviews

Chinese Rice Field
Photo credit: Charlie Fong

Kim Il-sung (1912-1994)  established a pervasive  cult of personality.  North Korea officially refers to Kim Il-sung as the "Great Leader" .

From Merrimon Book Reviews
The Ginseng Hunter
The Ginseng Hunter by Jeff Talarigo
by Jeff Talarigo

In solitude, a man hunts ginseng.  Following the tradition of his father, he hunts according to ancient customs.  Like his father, communism changes his life as  the effects of politics enter into a world seemingly isolated from the changes in the country.  During a trip to Yanji, the man hears the tales of a North Korean prostitute.  An almost fairy-tale like story reveals unimaginable poverty and inhumanity, a story that gives way to other stories of the concrete deprivation and struggles of individuals on the border of the Tumen river.  As the story unfolds, the politics of the times reach into the isolated territory of his home, affecting several individuals whose lives suddenly become intertwined with his, challenging him in his thoughts and challenging him to act.

In THE GINSENG HUNTER, Jeff Talarigo presents a stark contrast between the ancient almost mystical traditions of ginseng hunting and the politics of communism in the lives of his characters.  Unspeakable poverty influences the actions of his characters,  along the border and extending even to the most remote areas of the land and the human heart.  Through vivid imagery, THE GINSENG HUNTER details the desperation of those on the edge of survival and the political, ideological ideas which exasperate the situation.  As in his earlier book, THE PEARL DIVER, Jeff Talarigo brings out the humanity of his characters in a time of extreme cruelty. 
THE GINSENG HUNTER is not a political treatise but rather a fictional exploration of the topic and therein lies its beauty.  Through well-chosen images, Jeff Talarigo's vision centers on those moments in his characters' lives that reveal the crux of the situation in the interrelationship between characters and as one generation passes to another, from father to son.  As time and politics unfold, father and son and are different yet interconnected, not only in details of the ginseng on the mountain but the political effects on their lives.

In style, THE
GINSENG HUNTER is reminiscent of THE PEARL DIVER.  Jeff Talarigo's prose has an elegance in its beautiful, emotional simplicity and precisely connected images.  The life and journey of the ginseng hunter is not only an individual and a place but also an inner journey.  In its simplicity and directness, Jeff Talarigo's prose is at once stark and poetic.  In his newest work, Jeff Talarigo creates a more subtle effect as he narrows his focus and chooses fewer images to highlight the story.  THE PEARL DIVER hits a reader with a direct force whereas THE GINSENG HUNTER's fictional beauty evolves more gently.  Quite simply, both works are magnificent but those readers who loved THE PEARL DIVER will find a special pleasure in the discovery of the evolution of this author's style.  Without sacrificing those elements so special in THE PEARL DIVER, Jeff Talarigo incorporates them while refining his writing, reducing the life story of the ginseng hunter to its most essential transformative and poetic moments in response to the politics of his world.  Rather than simply churning out a carbon copy of his previous work, the author approaches this new tale with new stylistic insights that match the subject matter.  THE GINSENG HUNTER is a riveting tale of humanity seen in the face of the inhumanity of communism --- and a work of art. 

Publisher: Anchor (April 2009)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
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