Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Book Review: The Joy Brigade by Martin Limón

The events narrated in The Joy Brigade take place in the early 1970s, when the passions are still heated on the Korean peninsula. The presence of the US Army in the South makes the people feel more and more uncomfortable, while in the North the People’s Army seems to be preparing for a big event: an assault against the former in order to reunite the country.

The US army chiefs feel quite unsettled about the situation and that’s exactly when Sergeant George Sueño, a young Mexican American stationed indefinitely with the U.S. 8th Army in South Korea as a Military Police detective, comes in. This time his mission though is quite different, as he no longer has to try and make soldiers behave, but is ordered to do the impossible: infiltrate the inner circles of the North Korean Communist Party.

Why do that? To smuggle out an ancient map detailing the network of secret tunnels that run underneath the De-Militarized Zone. How is he supposed to do that? By meeting its keeper, Doc Yong, as he calls her, an ex-lover of his that had to flee to the North after she was accused of murder.

Things are complicated to start with, but they will become more so as he’ll arrive at the North Korean port city of Nampo, aboard an Albanian merchant freighter. He first has to escape the attention of the port authorities and then meet a disillusioned hero of the revolution who’s supposed to take him to Pyongyang, where he’s going to meet the Doc, but also compete in a Taekwondo tournament in order to get closer to his goals. Talk about complicated, huh!

There’s an old proverb that goes: When the people are planning the gods are laughing. Well the gods would have a pretty good laugh if they caught a sniff of George’s plans. This is not a novel where someone would wonder how something could go wrong, but one where he or she would be surprised if nothing did.

Even the hero has his doubts as to whether his mission could ever be accomplished, as he’s afraid that he’ll not only get arrested but that he’ll be tortured as well. The plan is ridiculous and he knows it, everyone does, but yet he has no other option; it’s either try and stop a war, or do nothing and pay the consequences.

Well, he tries. He tries hard. And he succeeds. And he fails. Yes, he does both, since his is a mission of many and varying parts, with varying degrees of difficulty. During his long journey into the secluded country he’ll come to learn a lot of things about its people, he’ll face danger and meet kindness, and he’ll get to know tenderness and bathe in deception.

The author seems to know his subject matter so well that the events he describes sound more or less true. The wars, the landscape, the madness, he describes in words rich in their simplicity. As for his characters, they are all full of passions and with deep belief in their causes, even the infamous ones, like the pretty and sadistic she-Captain Rhee Mi-sook and the infamous Moon Chaser, a man of many faults and just as many qualities.

 The Joy Brigade, that took its name from a female brigade, the members of which were supposed to serve the nation and the Great Leader by becoming slaves to the male elite, is not only a thriller. It’s also a story about fathers and daughters, about pride in war and disgrace, and about love in its most pure and its most vile forms.

Love is beauty, love is life, but at the same time it could be ugliness and death. The author masterfully plants into his story the different manifestations of love, which at some points offer the reader more thrilling moments than the action itself.

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