The sorcerer of Pyongyang by Marcel Theroux

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Through the twists of chance, a young boy in North Korea, 1991, comes into the possession of a strange book left behind by a rare visitor to the country, a book whose cover depicts a giant red troll abducting a near naked woman. It is the ‘Dungeon Masters Guide’, the core rule book for the game of Dungeons and Dragons. The images within the comic frames arouse Jun-su’s curiosity, and he determines to learn English in order to understand it better. Thus starts a journey that will lead him to the glory of recognition as a linguist and poet by the Supreme Leader, and then to the downfall of imprisonment and torture. The book changes Jun-su’s life in ways that he could never have predicted.

Theroux has actually been to North Korea as part of a strictly supervised tour by a delegation of journalists, with the climax of the visit, the Mass Games celebration of the country’s 70th birthday. In his video he comments on how he was never sure whether what he was seeing was real or just for show. In Theroux’ novel The sorcerer of Pyongyang, Jun-su has been brought up with the myths that glorify the Great Leader Kim Il-Sung, and Dear Leader Kim Jong-Il. People ascribe to the propaganda and live in fear of ever being caught out as irreverent or unfaithful. Behind the façade of the happy dedicated Korean life is fear of being arrested and sent to labour camps. The guide book to Dungeons and Dragons also introduces a fantasy world but it is one where the game players can choose their own adventure, undertake heroic deeds and slay monsters. It fascinates Jun-su; he and a core group of friends enjoy exploring the game. However, as one astute student points out, Jun-su appropriates the role of mastermind coordinator of the challenges.

In the Korean world controlled by the Supreme Leader there is no freedom, no adventure. Instead there is an ever-pervasive fear of false allegation, betrayal and disappearance. The fear is overwhelming; no one is immune to coercion, not even a mother or a lover. Betrayal leads to nine years imprisonment for Jun-su, with torture and labouring in a re-education camp.

Theroux has based his novel on stories collected from refugees who have managed somehow to escape from North Korea. That, combined with his own experience of visiting the country, provides a compelling insight into the totalitarian state, its mix of subservience and fear, and the power of propaganda. The sorcerer of Pyongyang combines aspects of fantasy, romance and thriller; at the same time providing insight into the reality of life for people in a very different, highly secretive society.

Themes: North Korea, totalitarian state, fantasy, propaganda, surveillance, fear.

Helen Eddy