Jeff Talarigo has a remarkable talent: From some of the most horrific experiences a human being might face, he somehow crafts beautiful, haunting works of fiction. He captured the forced confinement of leprosy patients in mid-20th century Japan in his luminous debut novel, "The Pearl Diver." Now four years later, Talarigo offers The Ginseng Hunter, a story of quiet humanity discovered in the midst of overwhelming inhumanity.
The ginseng hunter is a middle-aged Chinese man who lives completely alone on his family farm, located along the Tumen River, which marks the border between rural China and devastated North Korea. He sustains himself by planting a garden every year and searching the surrounding mountains for elusive ginseng roots. Between his fields and the forest, he lives a life of near-silence, broken only once a month when he takes his foraged ginseng to the nearby village to sell. There he visits the local brothel, where he spends an evening with a series of different "Miss Wongs" – his only regular human contact of any kind.
In "the last century's final spring," the ginseng hunter's decades-old routine is broken by the arrival of the latest Miss Wong, with whom he is surprised to learn that he shares the Korean language. Their initial silence slowly melts as month by month they share their stories of escape from the brutal regime across the river. She has fled recently while he is two generations removed, his grandfather having made the initial escape.
Over the year that Talarigo tells the story of the hunter and his escapee lover – and of his lost family and her lost daughter – he reveals the harrowing details of their lives in measured doses. From the smallest flowers to the majestic mountain landscape, Talarigo unobtrusively pays homage to the expansive beauty that still exists all around, as if gently buffering the pain of the landscape's inhabitants.
North Korea in the 21st century remains a land of deprivation and terror, its people attempting to survive amid dwindling resources and government oppression. Starvation propels its dying citizens to grab a few ears of corn across the river, then risk death to return home with the precious kernels to share with those left behind. Those who dare to sell wares in the village marketplace must outsmart the unscrupulous border guards eager to steal their few hard-won yuan.
Without a choice, others rely on the kindness of strangers, sometimes only to be betrayed by their Chinese neighbors and sold back to the government for bounty fees. But with the riverside farms serving as beacons, refugees continue to dodge bullets in hopes of filling their stomachs.
In his solitude, the ginseng hunter has shut out the furtive shadows around him, the muffled sounds of suffering. But as love softens his heart, his eyes and ears open as well.
When a tiny cluster of rags he finds in his field turns out to be a starving child, he has no choice but to feed, clothe, and eventually love her. When he proves unable to protect the helpless little one, he wants nothing more than to completely close himself off again. But having now experienced love, he can no longer give up his soul. Although others have chosen betrayal in order to survive, he chooses to take grave risks in order to save even the so-called enemy – and hold onto his own humanity.
With both his novels, Talarigo is well on his way toward establishing himself as a quiet witness to humanity. (His next book will take us to the occupied territories of war-torn Palestine.)
While Talarigo is an expert at luring us out of our comfort zones to bear witness with him, he also gives us quiet heroes who do not give in, who do not give up. What we ultimately choose to do with both the devastation and the hope that we witness is up to us.
• Terry Hong is media arts consultant at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program.