“You don’t choose to be born. You just are. And your birth is your destiny, some say. I say the hell with that. And I should know. I was born not just once but five times. And five times I learned the same lesson. Sometimes in life, you have to grab your so-called destiny by the throat and wring its neck.”-Masaji Ishikawa
“A River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea” is the harrowing real-life account of Masaji Ishikawa who was born to a Korean father and a Japanese mother, taken to North Korea when he was just thirteen as his father fell for the North Korean “Paradise” propaganda and could at last return to Japan after 36 years only to feel again as a foreigner.
Masaji Ishikawa exposes North Korea for what it is. Ruled by tyrants, it is a failed state that spends on nuclear missiles but fails to prevent its own citizens from dying of starvation. There is not much difference between North Korea and Oceania, the fictional state created by George Orwell in his book “1984”. If there is any difference, there are two: the North Korean Leadership is more ruthless and stupid (in an evil way). In George Orwell’s 1984, the fictional state of Oceania has its own language called Newspeak and the dystopian state in that fictional work claims in Newspeak that:
War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.
In North Korea, it is no different:
“That’s what happens to language in countries like North Korea. A totalitarian dictatorship is a “democratic republic.” Bondage is known as “emancipation.””
With a stupid bureaucracy and idiotic policies such as:
“I hadn’t planted rice seedlings before, but I knew what every Japanese kid learned in elementary school. If you plant rice seedlings too close together, they crowd one another out and can’t produce a decent crop. Rice Growing 101, if you like. But then I thought, This guy can’t be an amateur. He must know something I don’t. Maybe they’ve discovered something new. So I carried on. Needless to say, the crop was a miserable failure. I often wonder how many people starved as a result of that idiotic policy.”
Masaji Ishikawa loses his parents, his wife, his nephew and even one of his children because of the tyrannical (and stupid – I hate bureaucracy) government in North Korea. But the real life account is a story about not only family, loss, power and human dignity but also what makes us human: hope.
To not give up, even after you have lost everything. To keep on trying. To keep on thinking. To not only wonder about a better future, but also act to get one.
Any time in the future that I find myself in despair, caring about dangers that only exist in my mind, I shall think about this book, about Masaji Ishikawa.
Reading this book sat me face to face to real despair faced by fellow humans on this planet. It made me wonder:
“What percentage of our reality is defined by where we are born, which family we are born in and the times we are born in?”
It filled me with gratitude for all that I have – my family with me, hot water, gas, a roof above my head. It made me thank my country, a country where I have the right to think and even criticize the government. But it also made me realize that I should care more, I should do more.
Maybe, we all should.
Amartya Dey, India
Verdict: 5 out 5 [A Must Read]
Categories: Reading Room