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A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa, translated by Risa Kobayashi [in Library Journal]

Memoirs by North Korean defectors have proliferated, but Masaji Ishikawa’s, originally published in 2000, might be the first available in English translation by a Japanese-born escapee. The Japanese bestseller, I Was Kim Jong Il’s Cook (2004), by pseudonymous Kenji Fujimoto, could be the only other North Korean/Japanese memoir, although Fujimoto’s luxurious existence bears no resemblance to Ishikawa’s inhumane ordeal.

“You don’t choose to be born. You just are,” Ishikawa opens the first chapter. “I was born not just once but five times.” His original birth occurred in Kawasaki, Japan, to a violent Korean father and long-suffering Japanese mother. His father – unceasingly punished for his Korean heritage – succumbed to promise-land propaganda and moved the family to North Korea in 1960, when Ishikawa was 13 (birth #2). The family’s status as “Japanese bastards” marked them for relentless abuses. Hopeless in his 20s, Ishikawa attempted suicide but failed (birth #3). Narrowly surviving his Yalu River escape, he regained consciousness (birth #4) in China. He returned to Japan (birth #5) after 36 hellish years, but repatriation without his family proves to be another agonizing hardship.

Verdict: Native Japanese speaker Brian Nishii adds enhancing fluency to the Anglophone rendering, delivering an impassioned performance that underscores Ishikawa’s harrowing experiences.

Review: “Audio,” Library Journal, April 15, 2018

Readers: Adult

Published: 2000 (Japan), 2018 (United States)


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