In Jeff Talarigo’s novel “The Ginseng Hunter”, a solitary man becomes reluctantly involved in the lives of North Koreans who have illegally entered China. Though his reluctance soon recedes, it is replaced by a moral discomfort that becomes especially acute as his relationships with these strangers become more personal.
In this novel, quiet contradictions abound. The ginseng hunter is a Chinese citizen of Korean extraction, and the region in China where he lives is home to one million Korean Chinese like himself. Despite (or perhaps because of) these connections, the ginseng hunter leads an ordered, sheltered life, working his farm and foraging for ginseng in the mountains.
But his routine is disrupted by intrusions that he does not fully understand, at least not at first. On one occasion he spots a stranger lurking near his farm, possibly stealing his crops, and later he stumbles over a human skull. The ginseng hunter also encounters a truck driver, who, frustrated with North Koreans crossing into China, claims he has tripled his income by turning them over to Chinese authorities for money. The geographical and political boundaries between the two countries are no longer so easily controlled, and those North Koreans who managed to escape have ended up trading one set of hardships for another.
The ginseng hunter soon learns more about the desperation of those who move within the shadows of his country. Once a month, he travels to Yanji, which harbors an illegal population of North Koreans. There, his prostitute-lover tells him stories about her life, her family, and ultimate escape from North Korea. She is a living ghost whose violent separation from her young daughter continues to inform her tragic life in China.
While their relationship brings the ginseng hunter out of his emotional isolation, hers is not the only story whose narrative the ginseng hunter directly influences. His increasing involvement with his lover and later, with other refugees, exacts a high price. His actions have real consequences for all involved and he soon laments that “I am not who I have become.” By novel’s end, the ginseng hunter retreats into a state of nature, which restores his moral equilibrium and brings with it a renewed sense of purpose.
This ending is consistent with the author’s emphasis on the importance of the natural world and the inevitability of its forces. Mr. Talarigo creates an environment that is both beautiful yet unforgiving, especially when he describes the brutality of the weather and the freezing waters of the Tumen River, an imposing thoroughfare for North Koreans coming into and out of China. This environment serves as an important character in the novel. It is within this context that we feel the sheer physical and psychological hardship of the ginseng hunter’s existence, as well as the desperation of the North Koreans he encounters, some of whom are driven to eat snow and tree bark out of sheer starvation.
The Ginseng Hunter is Mr. Talarigo’s second novel. His first novel, “The Pearl Diver”, was set in 1940s Japan and praised for its lyricism and storytelling. Despite The Ginseng Hunter’s subject matter, it lacks the moral immediacy, naturalistic dialogue, and close characterizations of its predecessor. Here, the novel’s characters seem strangely disconnected from their own lives and from one another, as though Mr. Talarigo were writing through gauze. At the same time, his use of language can be sharp and evocative, and for that reason alone The Ginseng Hunter is worth seeking out.