Challenged, perplexed – and at times, moved – by The Corpse in the Koryo

July 28, 2010 at 12:03 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Here’s what the folks at Stop, You’re Killing Me! had to say about The Corpse in the Koryo by James Church:

A Corpse in the Koryo (2006) introduces Inspector O, a state police officer, in North Korea. After an odd assignment to photograph a car speeding through the mountains at dawn, Inspector O realizes he and his superior, Pak, have become involved in a power struggle between rival military and intelligence forces. In this closed society, everyone is spying on everyone else, selling information or buying it. O writes the shortest reports possible, knowing that details invite questions, but always “forgets” to wear his lapel portrait of the Leader. Though Inspector O searches for justice in an ever-shifting reality, cases are rarely solved in his world. In constant pursuit of an ever-elusive cup of tea, O worries chips of hardwood, smoothing the edges to get to the heart of the wood, and dreams of someday building a bookcase. This is an excellent first novel, beautifully written in a unique voice that brings an unfamiliar world to life.

I’ve known of The Corpse in the Koryo for some time – known that it has garnered plaudits from critics, and that the author, writing under a pseudonym, worked in intelligence for many years. Purportedly, his knowledge of North Korea is first hand.

Despite the laudatory reviews (like this one in the Washington Post), I had never intended to read this novel, Why, I reasoned, would I wish to read about about such a grim, benighted place? Then the Usual Suspects made it their June selection. So I thought I would give it a go…

And although the  book had some fine moments, for the most part I had to struggle to get through it. The primary difficulty lay with the fiendishly complex story line. I got lost about a third of the way in and after that, pretty much stopped trying to make sense of events. Inspector O is a prickly but basically decent man, trying to be a conscientious policeman in a world where only those who toady, connive, and deceive get any kind of reward for their efforts. As bleak as things are in his country, it is still his country, and he becomes defiant when an outsider denigrates it:

‘This godforsaken country, as you call it, is where I live. This is my home. The little room I have is where I go at night to find shelter from the storms of the day. Maybe a Finn would think it too cramped, not well furnished, lacking blond wood and bright furniture. But I like it fine.’

I lived in South Korea for a year, in the early 1970s. I was in a small village whose tiny houses were surrounded by bare dirt. Around each house was a stone wall with broken glass embedded on top, to discourage the “slicky boys” from breaking and entering. Esthetically the place had nothing to recommend it. Yet in Seoul, I saw lovely parks and fabulous textile markets. I came to admire in particular the celadon pottery: .

While there, I had the opportunity to teach English. At the conclusion of one of the classes, the students took me out to dinner. We sat on the floor, around a low table, and I ate some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted.

I found the people of South Korea to be kind and  generous.

There is some wonderful writing in this novel. A “Military Security thug” is described thus:

There was no doubt he was Korean, but neither could anyone miss that in his veins flowed blood from ancestors who never belonged here. The hawklike features, the sharp nose on a long, lean face, flashing eyes  set deep in the head. Allowing for generations of marriage with the locals, this was the face of a long-ago Arab horseman, come far from home and trapped here by fateful orders he could not disobey.

(I love that last phrase. How many of us have found ourselves at some time trapped by orders we could not – or would not – disobey.)

Inspector O’s deepest emotional bond – seemingly his only emotional bond – is with his deceased grandfather, a man known for his integrity, intelligence, and compassion. He was one of those people whose shrewd observations on life take on, with passing of time, the quality of verities worth cherishing:

‘Don’t listen to anyone who tells you about loyalty to an idea. You’re alone….Without your family, you’re alone.’

‘You can’t shape people…just like you can’t shape wood. You’ve got to find the heart and work from there. There’s no such thing as scrap, not wood, not people.’

Almost everyone at the June meeting had some degree of difficulty with this novel, mainly due to the Byzantine plot. We grappled with the subject of North Korea’s history and its present parlous state. It is hard to get a sense of what life is like for ordinary people in a place so cut off from the world. We agreed that James Church does an admirable job of showing the privation those people grapple with every day and what they must do simply to survive. His depiction of an extremely oppressive atmosphere has the ring of authenticity.

Initially, I felt  that the work required to get through A Corpse in the Koryo would make me permanently unwilling to read another book in the series. However, now that I’ve revisited the subject, I may reconsider.

For so long a time, the news from this place of suffering has been uniformly bad. And so it was with relief that I encountered a cautious note of optimism in a piece by Michael Gerson that appeared in the Post last month.


The “Koryo” in the book’s title is an actual hotel in central Pyongyang:


During their historic appearance in North Korea two years ago, The New York Philharmonic, led by Loren Maazel, performed a lovely arrangement of  “Arirang,” a tune I heard often during my sojourn in South Korea:

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