Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

A friend from work lent me The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2012) because she knew I liked depressing books, and I'm also not averse to reading Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. While there is certainly plenty to be depressed about in Johnson's exploration of the North Korean dictatorship, I'd argue that the book is ultimately uplifting if you look at it in the right light.

The novel is divided into two parts, in the first, "The Biography of Jun Do," we follow our protagonist on his journey through the North Korean machine. He starts as an orphan (or is he?), then a soldier training to fight in tunnels under the DMZ, then a kidnapper, then being trained to learn English, then a radio operator on a boat, before falling into the biggest assignment of his life so far, serving as an interpreter on an unofficial diplomatic trip to a Senator's ranch in Texas. Whew.

Through these positions, we learn a lot about the structure of Jun Do's life in North Korea, and even more about Jun Do himself. We gradually accept that fortunes can be made and lost on the whim of authority, that appearances are everything, and that the ability to tell a convincing story is more important than the truth. After he makes it back from Texas, Jun Do is sent to a prison mine, the kind that no one ever comes back out of alive, and that is the last we hear from him.

Until the second part: "The Confessions of Commander Ga." An interrogator has a man in his booth who is Commander Ga, a North Korean hero, a cruel man, the head of the prison mine system, the husband of the national actress, Sun Moon, and a rival of Kim Jung Il. This man has been called Commander Ga by the Dear Leader, so that's who he his, but that isn't who he has always been. The story of how our little John Doe became one of the most powerful men in North Korea, and how he ended up in the interrogation chamber, forms the heart of the book.

Johnson weaves a powerful, fast-moving story and skillfully plays the humanity and individualism of his characters against the unsmiling conformity of the state machine. There is no denying that the isolated country of North Korea is a fascinating subject, and I found myself getting online to find glimpses of state-released photographs and journalistic impressions of the closed off country. Because North Korea is so unknowable, and Johnson is not Korean (he went on a brief state-sponsored trip after he started writing the novel, but also researched the country extensively and interviewed refugees) we shouldn't rely on this story as a "true" vision of what life in North Korea is like for its citizens, but Johnson's impressions and imaginings give us an authentic-feeling (and bone chilling) view of what it might be like. As the book progresses the character of Jun Do takes on Forrest Gump-like qualities of being in the right place at the right time, and the plot nearly veers into the territory of science fiction, but Johnson's well-earned grounding of his characters and their goals keeps the novel from going off the rails.

This is not a cheery book by any means, but a fascinating and well-written one.

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