By Paul Yoon
Simon & Schuster, 2013
This is a short, dreamlike debut novel about a North Korean man who makes a life in Brazil in the 1950s.
Yohan, a North Korean man, is captured during the Korean War and spends a few years in a prisoner camp. In 1954, when the war ends, and he is 25, he is offered repatriation, but instead he chooses to travel on a cargo ship to Brazil, where the UN has arranged a job for him with a Japanese tailor. Unable to speak a world of Portuguese, Yohan finds his way in this new world, with the help of: Kiyoshi, the tailor; two orphan kids; and Peixe, a church groundskeeper. The book narrates the story of Yohan’s life in Brazil, and his life in Korea, with the Korean story being told backwards, from his time in the South Korean prison camp, to his early years growing up on a farm.
Yoon’s prose is poetic and moving, and his writing is sparse. His style reminds me of Michael Ondaatje’s early works. I was immediately drawn in to this book and was moved by the story of a man finding a home in a new world, where he is both connected and disconnected, and where the ordinary takes on a new weight. This is a story of displacement and loss; the action in the book is both subtle and monumental, as Yohan leaves his culture behind and eventually finds solace in his new life in Brazil.
I bought this book at a local Brooklyn bookstore.