Title: A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea
Author: Misaji Ishikawa
Genre(s): nonfiction, memoir
Length: 159 pages
Published: 2000 in Japan, translated into English in 2017
In 1960, at the age of thirteen, Misaji Ishikawa moved from Japan to North Korea with his father, mother, and three sisters as part of reparations negotiated by the Red Cross to help Koreans in Japan return to their home country. His family was promised a “heaven on earth” in Korea with good education, ample wages, and better social standing. In reality, however, life in North Korea under Kim Il-sung was anything but a utopia. A River in Darkness tells the heartbreaking story of Ishikawa’s thirty-six years in North Korea and his eventual return to Japan in 1996.
A River in Darkness was originally written in Japanese and is (I think) the first book I’ve read that comes from that region of the world—and, as expected, the style reads differently than books I’ve read that are originally written in English, Russian, etc. I point this out not only because of the newness but because I found Ishikawa’s writing style to be enjoyable and poignant in its simplicity. There is no pretense, no hesitation when describing the horrible, sometimes shocking realities of his life in North Korea, and no attempts to dress up his experiences with elaborate descriptions or pretty metaphors for shock value or sympathy; at the same time, Ishikawa is skilled and thoughtful, and his prose reads as if he were sitting across from you and speaking about his life. Here’s an example from pages 23-24:
“An orchestra was playing on the dock, its music thin and haunting. Welcome to North Korea! I remembered the ghastly brass band back in Niigata—its jaunty, preposterous, inane pomposity. And now here was this sad orchestra, scraping away in the icy wind. As the ship edged closer to the quay, I saw that the players were all schoolgirls. Although it was midwinter, they wore little more than the thin jacket of the Korean national costume. The sharp wind blew in my eyes. Then I took a second look. Their faces. Their phony smiles. You must have seen them on TV. Those grotesque displays of schoolgirls—automata wheeled out in Pyongyang to celebrate the birthday of the Dear Leader or some other such dismal anniversary. And there they were, in prototype. The rictus grins of the brainwashed.”
You can see in this paragraph how Ishikawa uses vivid descriptions yet never veers into unnecessary ornateness; to me, he strikes the perfect balance between sparseness and elaboration, and it serves his story well.
Since A River in Darkness is a memoir (and a rather short memoir on top of that) there isn’t much “characterization” in the sense used when analyzing fiction. Ishikawa does not go into extreme detail about his own character change nor the character of others, which is to be expected when it comes to memoirs. However, this doesn’t mean that the book lacks emotion or connection—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Ishikawa doesn’t need to spend pages describing his thought processes or the behavior of his family to convey the pain of abuse, poverty, grief, starvation, or hopelessness that they suffer; in short sentences, he is able to communicate the depth of emotions that are often too great for words, and reveal the nature of both himself and those around him.
The memoir quickly covers almost the entire expanse of Ishikawa’s life, from his childhood in Japan, to his family’s move to North Korea, to his young adult life, to his married life, to his escape back to Japan. Because of both of the style and the length of the book (there are only five chapters, along with a prologue and an epilogue), it is both easy to follow the events of Ishikawa’s life and compellingly organized as to make you want to continue to read.
The setting of A River in Darkness varies widely—we’re introduced to the small town of Mizonokuchi in Japan, the poor mountain village of Dong Chong-ri and the dystopian city of Hamhung in North Korea, the Yalu River on the border of North Korea and China, Shenyang and Dalian City in China, and finally Tokyo, on top of various places of work or residence where Ishikawa found himself over the course of his life. Ishikawa never delves deeply into any of the settings, beyond what is necessary to describe the important moments of his life, and the broader political or social history in North Korea and Asia as a whole is not elaborated in extreme detail either. However, although I would have liked to know more about the broader context of what was going on during Ishikawa’s time in North Korea, that information was not necessary for the purpose of his memoir and did not take away from the book.
As expected, A River in Darkness is filled with potentially objectionable content, namely for young readers or those who are more sensitive. Ishikawa experiences familial abuse during his childhood in Japan. In both Japan and Korea, his status as only “half-of” that nationality results in derogatory name calling and poor treatment. There is cursing, but not as heavily as other memoirs I’ve read. Sexual content is low. The biggest “objectionable” aspect of the book deals with violence and severe human suffering. There are descriptions or mentions of: fights, beatings, abuse from police, executions, war, concentration or re-education camps, starvation, suicide, and cannibalism, among other things. Again, nothing is described in gruesome detail, and in fact is important to the purpose and message of the book, but may not be suitable for young or sensitive readers.
“What do I remember of that night? The night I escaped from North Korea? There are so many things that I don’t remember, that I’ve put out of my mind forever…But I’ll tell you what I do recall.” (p. 1)
Reading A River in Darkness was a surreal, sobering experience. At this point, news of what happens under communism or even what still happens in North Korea is not new, and even though that knowledge is obviously disturbing and quickly condemned, it is easy to keep it at a distance mentally and emotionally. Ishikawa poignantly closes that distance.
I’ve always hated the idea of book reviews saying “this is mandatory reading,” and I’m not one to think that it’s useful to continually tell people how bad others have it. Life is not a competition over who has had the worst of it. However, books like A River in Darkness are extremely important and should be widely read. Ishikawa’s story puts a face on broad human suffering, again warns the world how horrible systems like communism are, reminds us of the nature of propaganda, and gives those of us who live in freer societies a healthy dose of perspective.
As I finished the epilogue and closed the book, I was struck by two feelings: first, great sorrow over the repeated miseries and atrocities that Ishikawa, his family, and the people of North Korea faced and continue to face, and second, great thankfulness for my life. I pray that Ishikawa can finally find some joy and peace and be reunited with the family he has left. I also pray that the people of North Korea will be able to taste freedom and find reprieve from their sorrows sooner rather than later.
I give A River in Darkness 4 out of 5 stars.