Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son: A Glimpse Behind Kim Jong-il's Curtain

Welcome to North Korea, where "beauty means nothing" and "nothing is spontaneous"; and where the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong-il never lets the truth get in the way of a good story — indeed, "stories are factual...the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change."

That last quote illustrates the major theme of Adam Johnson's wonderful, terrifying, engrossing, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel. Only that which the state wants to be true is actually true — in other words, "they lived in a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them."

But the shifting idea of truth is only part of what makes this novel as fascinating as it is terrifying. Indeed, as you read about prison camps and kidnapping, cruelty and starvation, and the basic destruction of individuality, you have to continuously remind yourself that this is not a story about a near-future dystopia, it's an actual, real-life near-present-day setting.

None of that, I realize, sounds exactly cheery — but even so, this is a novel that's hard to stop reading. It's about as captivating and absorbing as any literary novel I've read. At its root, it's the story of Jun Do, an orphan who eventually rises through the ranks of the army, taking on various roles — he kidnaps Japanese citizen, he learns how to fight in the dark, and he is part of a fishing crew, though his role is to man the radio and spy on transmissions from the U.S. and anything else he comes across. An ill-fated trip to Texas to bargain with a Senator sets in motion the chain of events that occur in the second half of the novel.

And you really don't want to know more than that. The second half of the novel winds around and through itself in a awe-inspiringly artful display of storytelling. It's not hard to understand what's happening from the reader's perspective, but if you're a character in the story, you're constantly wondering about the answer to what should be simple questions: What is the truth? Is there any intersection at all between the state propaganda machine and the truth of what really happened/is happening?

All along, in the second part of the novel, an unnamed first-person narrator (one of three simultaneous story strains, all telling the same story in a different way), who happens to be an interrogator, gives us a glimpse into "normal" North Korean life. For obvious reasons, North Korea is under-represented in fiction, but these snippets of story lent some "day-to-day" credibility to the novel. Johnson says at the end of the story, in a conversation with his editor, that most of what's written here is based on the stories of defectors and what he saw on a visit to Pyongyang — but because North Koreans are forbidden from talking to foreigners, Johnson was only permitted to speak with his handlers for the trip. Still, he tells us, he can justify every piece or detail included in the story, from labor camps to kidnappings, and from movies to the blatantly anti-America propaganda (which are often the comic relief parts of this novel). In other words, this is fiction, but it's also as accurate a portrayal of North Korean life as we'll get. Again, this is not 1984 or a Margaret Atwood novel. It's life under Kim Jong-il, and it's utterly fascinating. 

Whether or not this is a rightful Pulitzer winner is impossible to say. But I can tell you this: This is a fantastic novel. If you like literary fiction, if you like learning about a culture you probably knew little about, and if you like a story that will often leave you gasping for air, check this out.


  1. As soon as I saw that you were reviewing this I thought, oohhhh please tell me he liked this. I thought this was an exceptional read!

    1. I liked it! "Exceptional" is a very good word for it.

  2. I didn't love this as much as you. While I appreciated the writing, I struggled through the first half - only finishing it because of the crazy praise it was getting from everywhere - the second half did redeem it. Maybe because I know so little of North Korea, but the book read like HHhH for me. I never knew where non fiction ended and novel began. I will say that even 5 month later this book still haunts me and that in itself makes it worth the read.

    1. The first part had me hooked right from the start - from the image of the dog looking out to sea for his kidnapped master. Just heart breaking.

      But, re, HHhH: I think it's actually completely the opposite - in HHhH, you knew everything was true, because Binet took painstaking effort to tell us that he didn't feel right writing anything that wasn't true. Here, you're right, we're not sure what's fact and what's fiction (until Johnson's explanation at the end), but that shouldn't matter - we know it's a novel, so we assume it's fiction based on fact.

      We do agree on this, though: It is haunting.

  3. This was such a heartbreaking book. I read compulsively, one book after another, but after this one, I had to stop and let it wash through me. Parts were so surreal, that I doubted could be true, were often based on factual research on the part of the author. It reminded me very much of the Killing Fields; violence and cruelty one human being to another is a terrible thing, but the scope of insanity on this scale is mind bending. Makes me wish something could be done, but what??

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  5. Just found your blog. I loved this book by adam johnson. I found it riveting and fascinating. I share your taste in fiction and will be dropping in to read your review. thanks for sharing your thoughts!