Book review: Brother One Cell

brotheronecellCullen Thomas: Brother One Cell — Coming of Age in South Korea’s Prisons
Pan Books, 2007
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A “powerful, harrowing and moving memoir”, proclaims the blurb on the back. “A Korean tear in the muscle round the ribs, a Korean hernia…” reads the selective quote. The cover design, a Getty image of hands grasping prison bars, the typeface like a Robert Ludlum thriller. What horrors are contained in these 408 pages? Brutal beatings by the prison officers? Worse indignities inflicted by follow inmates? You are being misled by the power of puff. In fact the worst indignities the author suffers from his fellow convicts is a bad haircut and a foul on the basketball court.

A better picture is painted by the book’s subtitle: coming of age in South Korea’s prisons. For this is the story of a young American of a sort that the Korean press loves to hate: teaching English illegally, and smuggling hashish. Having come to Korea with his own girlfriend, he was at least innocent of another misdemeanour of which foreigners are sometimes guilty. Caught red-handed as he picks up a kilo of hash at the post office, Thomas has to do some time behind bars.

The first half of the book, the most interesting pages of which describe the mind-numbing tedium of teaching English to children who learn by rote, is overlong. Details such as the price of cannabis in the Philippines, his distant ancestor who tried to smuggle guns for Irish nationalists, his childhood playing Dungeons and Dragons, could all be excised, and the story of his arrest and pre-trial preparations trimmed by 90% without harming the book at all.

As it is, it’s relatively safe to start at part 3, where Thomas ends up in Taejon jail, in a wing specially designed for foreigners — which does not mean that it’s a luxury existence. Far from it. But at least it doesn’t mean sharing your cell with a dozen fellow human beings. Interesting little details of prison life are the inter-racial penis envy; the voluntary genital self-mutilation performed by some of the locals (you’ve heard of cauliflower ears? Imagine sunflower todgers); the innovative ways that prisoners find to gratify their natural desires. Other interesting details are the burning need that prisoners have to express themselves in writing, and the lengths that are gone to obtain paper and writing implements; and the fact that work in the prison factory partly mirrors Korea’s own development: first shoes, then circuitry for motor vehicles.

But the central thread of the book is the seemingly life-changing effect on the author of the rigid hierarchy among the prisoners, arising either from age or from relative seniority in the gangster pecking-order, which imposes order among the prisoners (and to a certain extent on the jailers) and gives the author a sense of security.

Harrowing? No. Powerful? In inverse proportion to the book’s length. Moving? Not terribly, but definitely interesting and worth a read.

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