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Sunday, April 26, 2009

North Korea: Even facts read like fiction

BAMBOO AND BLOOD by James Church. New York: Thomas Dunne, 2008, 294 pp., $23.95 (cloth) NORTH KOREA KIDNAPPED MY DAUGHTER by Sakie Yokota. New York: Vertical, 2009, 208 pp., $16.95 (paper)

During the shooting of the 1946 Humphrey Bogart film "The Big Sleep" — a noir movie notorious for its convoluted plot — director Howard Hawks cabled Raymond Chandler, author of the book on which the screenplay was based, to ask if Owen Taylor, the chauffeur, was murdered or committed suicide. "Dammit I didn't know either," Chandler was said to have replied.

Upon reading this third novel in the saga of Inspector O, it occurred to me that Chandler may have served as James Church's inspiration. In 294 intricately written pages, the who's, what's and wherefores of "Blood and Bamboo" are never fully revealed. Instead readers are presented with a puzzle from which key pieces are purposely withheld, leaving them to speculate why intelligence agents in Pakistan and Switzerland were killed, and by whom.

"Bamboo and Blood," like Church's two previous works, is peopled by characters devoid of any emotions except mutual suspicion, thereby conveying the paranoia and desperation of daily life in the world's most totalitarian state.

The grandson of a famous general and something of a maverick, Inspector O is portrayed as a compelling antihero with no real friends. He is dispatched to Geneva, where several tense encounters with Swiss Intelligence ensue, and where some members of his delegation wind up dead.

The choice of his protagonist's name is brilliant. Church could have just as easily named him Kim or Park; but by stripping down the name to a single circular letter, Church subtly imparts a Kafkaesque quality. Empty at the center and perhaps waiting to be filled, the "O" leaves readers to decide whether according O a modicum of sympathy requires them to compromise their principles, since, after all, he is also an instrument of the repressive regime. Symbolically the O might suggest a mouth that opens but dares not to speak; or perhaps it alludes to the circular entry point of the bullet that awaits him if he makes one mistake.

Gradually the reader's emotions, like those of the protagonist, become anesthetized as the comprehension sinks in that O is resigned to whatever fate deals him. Although he prevails, his survival offers no sense of satisfaction or closure since he remains at the mercy of forces beyond his control.

No wonder Church need not feel compelled to grapple with the killers' motives: in North Korea, it scarcely matters.

Tireless campaign

On the evening of Nov. 15, 1977, while walking home near the seashore, 13-year-old Niigata Prefecture resident Megumi Yokota vanished without a trace. Initially the authorities had no reason to believe she was any different from the hundreds of other teenage runaways reported missing each year.

Although reports from North Korean defectors had raised suspicions that over a dozen Japanese had been abducted to that country, it was two decades before any details of the girl's fate were to surface. Megumi, her family was informed, had married, given birth to a daughter and died of illness at age 29.

This polemic by Megumi's mother Sakie vaguely recalls C.D.B. Bryan's gripping work of nonfiction "Friendly Fire" (1978), about an angry Iowa mother who went on a crusade during the Vietnam War, tenaciously pressuring the U.S. Army to come clean about the accidental death of her son.

This English translation gives a wider voice to Mrs. Yokota's tireless campaign to exert pressure on the North Korean government for a full accounting of the fate of Megumi and the other Japanese abductees. Told in a grieving mother's own words. its tone of righteous anger is tangible. Beyond what appears in this book, alas, the nightmarish details of what actually befell Megumi Yokota may never be known.

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