Review:  J. M. Lee’s “The Boy Who Escaped Paradise”

Although we in the West know little about the Hermit Kingdom, I suspect that our governments have shaped much of what we believe we know. That remark is not to imply that life in North Korea is open, free, or even comfortable for most of its people. It’s simply that our sources are so limited and appear to focus, mostly, on the nuclear capability of its regime, now in its third generation. The opposite (what they understand about us) is equally true. Remember the Onion’s cover shortly after Kim Jong Un assumed power? The satirical publication identified him as the world’s most handsome man. And—and this is what is important—he apparently fell for the prank. Each side’s understanding of the other’s has been a disaster, though we can certainly point out numerous reasons why this has been so.

Besides the East/West limitations, South Korean novelist, J. M. Lee, may also be contributing to the misunderstanding between the two Koreas, especially various stereotypes each has of the other. That is not necessarily a bad thing for fiction to do because there is plenty to admire in his novel, The Boy Who Escaped Paradise, particularly its suspense; yet I oddly couldn’t get Lisbeth Salander’s struggle against various evil forces out of my mind when I observed the antics, the obstacles, and the ruses Gilmo (Lee’s main character) employs to, ultimately, reach his success. Success might be defined here in the usual Western way: money, even though Gilmo appears to be uninterested in getting financial stability. But I don’t want to give away that much of the story’s outcome.

Gilmo, who narrates most of the novel and is barely twenty as the story begins, is apprehended in New York City, accused of murdering another Korean and leaving strange pictures and numbers on the victim’s body. The deceased is said to have informed Western officials about North Korea’s nuclear program. After a brief scene interrogating Gilmo, the story jumps back to the beginning of its chronological order, though that sequencing is also interrupted with additional scenes of interrogation. In the first of these flashbacks, Gilmo is in his early teens, attending Pyongyang First Middle School (earlier attended by the Great Leader), where he’s been identified as a math genius, but he’s also almost totally ostracized from the other students. Later, we will learn that Gilmo suffers from Asperger’s, he can’t stand being touched, and his mathematical skills will be elevated to math savant.

Gilmo’s father was a skilled physician but when a high-ranking official who was covered with burns died, his father was demoted to chief undertaker at the hospital. Shortly, both father and son are sent away to one of the country’s boyescapedparasecret labor camps. Contributing to the punishment was his father’s surreptitious conversion to Christianity. Life in the camp (where his father dies) is made even more humiliating than the grueling environment dictates because of a sadistic warden who complicates their lives. Another inmate, known as Mr. Kang, recognizes the young man’s math skills and further encourages him. It is mathematics that thus sustains Gilmo, plus his encounter with the other inmate, Yeong-ae, a girl who is a couple of years older and his only friend. She’s also mathematically gifted and the two of them develop a secret language that they aptly call Gilmese.

Much later, while being interrogated in the United States, Gilmo will explain that language, which he insists is not a code but a language (remember the strange numbers and marks on the body): “‘I made it up.’ It’s an amalgam of the languages I know—Korean, English, Russian, Chinese—and math signs and numbers. Sigma is used as a prefix, to mean adding or building something. ξenergy means cooperation or solidarity, and ξknowledge signifies refinement or knowledge. My language uses +, -, x, ÷, ƒ, Ξ, √ to mean something specific or, when joined with existing languages, to turn into prefixes or suffixes. I have 1,600 words, various derivatives, and a grammar system, and their location in a sentence changes their meaning.” [Note: These are the closest symbols in Microsoft Word I could use to indicate some of Gilmo’s letters and symbols.]

The world of the labor camps in followed by a panorama of international sites once Yeong-ae and Gilmo separately escape from North Korea. You might say that the rest of this intriguing story focuses on Gilmo’s attempts to be reunited with Yeong-ae in what can be described as their rather strange relationship. Remember that Gilmo can’t stand physical contact with another person. We never see the two of them touching. We move from China, to Shanghai, then on to South Korea, and subsequently to Mexico, Europe, and the United States. Gilmo’s search for Yeong-ae (whom he encounters and then loses several times) is based on six degrees of separation and game theory. His mathematical skills assist him at numerous times, typically so that he can acquire vast amounts of money (for example, figuring out the causality of gambling). The story is often breathless in its pace given the fact that only about four years are covered once Gilmo has escaped from North Korea. The translation from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim is as smooth as the surface of a pond. J. M. Lee’s cleverness as a storyteller is a continual delight.

M. Lee: The Boy Who Escaped Paradise
Trans. by Chi-Young Kim
Pegasus Books, 278 pp., $24.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.