What We Are Reading Today: A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church

Updated 14 June 2018
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What We Are Reading Today: A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church

Secretive North Korea is not an obvious choice as the location for a detective story, not least because it is so impenetrable to the outsider.

But Asia specialists say this novel offers a vivid window into the mysterious country.

One expert called it “the best unclassified account of how North Korea works and why it has survived all these years.”

The protagonist is Inspector O, whose investigation into a murder at the Koryo Hotel pitches him into a deadly contest between powerful factions in the regime.

The nation’s leader is never mentioned by name, but his shadow stalks every chapter. The inspector is a man struggling to hold on to his humanity in a world where humanity has little value.

The depth of detail is perhaps less surprising when you learn that James Church is the nom de plume of a former Western intelligence officer who spent years in Korea.

But it more than justifies the verdict of Newt Gingrich, the former Republican US presidential hopeful, who declared the book “a must-read” for anyone trying to understand the Kim dynasty of dictators.

This truly original thriller is about much more than a crime investigation.


‘Tales of Yusuf Tadrus’ — the story of a struggling artist with bills to pay

Updated 20 June 2018
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‘Tales of Yusuf Tadrus’ — the story of a struggling artist with bills to pay

  • Esmat’s novel is a glimpse into the life of an artist, his constant attempt to merge imagination with reality and the life of a Coptic-Christian in Egypt

CHICAGO: Winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature in 2016, Adel Esmat’s “Tales of Yusuf Tadrus” is the story of a young man from the city of Tanta that sits in the Nile Delta. Yusuf struggles to find a balance between his dream of oil painting, canvases and light with his reality of teaching English, providing for a family and attempting to understand where he stands in the world. 

Esmat’s novel is a glimpse into the life of an artist, his constant attempt to merge imagination with reality and the life of a Coptic-Christian in Egypt.

Beginning every chapter with “Yusuf Tadrus Says,” Esmat delves deep into the life of his protagonist, a young man whose very birth leaves him uneasy in life. Knowing his mother had not intended on having children and had devoted her life to God, Yusuf believes he is destined to be extraordinary and embarks on a complicated journey in art and life.

Esmat’s portrayal of Yusuf’s struggle is intimate and detailed. Yusuf is an extremely introspective, introverted character, whose world clashes with his art as it takes him from Tanta to Alexandria, back to Tanta and as far as Al-Tur.

Esmat insightfully narrates an incredible story of struggle and longing. He paints a picture of Egypt, especially Tanta, of the alley where Yusuf grew up on Ghayath Al-Din Street and his family life, his mother who collects contributions for the Holy Bible Association, and his father, Khawaga Tadrus Bushra, donning a Saidi jallabeya, a skullcap and a white scarf as he sells dry beans and seeds. Yusuf spends his childhood riding his bicycle with friends, collecting contributions with his mother, experiencing the Six-Day War and winning a painting competition that brings him to the Palace of Culture on Al-Bahr Street where he learns to draw and, eventually, paint.

Esmat creates in Yusuf a multifaceted character who is both the protagonist and antagonist in his own story, tormented between a dream and reality against the backdrop of an unforgiving society.