If you were taking one of those free association tests and the tester asked your response to "North Korea," what words and pictures would come to your mind? For most, I suspect it's nameless, faceless workers wearing identical clothing, haircuts and Party badges, living in primitive conditions under the most paranoid, repressive regime imaginable, where the only citizen allowed to be an individual is that short man with the odd jumpsuits and pompadour; i.e., the "Dear Leader," Kim Jong Il. [This review was written before Kim Jong Il's death.]
Adam Johnson shows that there's a lot of life and humanity, and even humor, behind those conceptions of rigid uniformity, especially in his protagonist, Pak Jun Do. When Jun Do meets some Americans (through an amazing series of events), they mis-hear his name as John Doe. That's a revealing mistake. In North America, we use "John Doe" to represent a male character whose identity we don't know. Sometimes we use the name to mean an Everyman. Both are appropriate for Jun Do, who was raised in an orphanage as the son of its master. He doesn't know what happened to his mother and his father is unknowable. His name isn't even his; like all residents of the orphanage, he's been assigned the name of one of Korea's political martyrs.
Jun Do's life, threading through this book, is one of astonishing hardship, pain and endurance. He is a soldier, an intelligence officer on board a fishing boat, a prisoner in a work camp and a torture facility, member of a diplomatic mission, and a man who manages to find love and freedom in a most unlikely way. Through the story of his life, the story of contemporary life in North Korea is revealed in all its black-is-white totalitarian craziness. Adam Johnson paints such a detailed picture of how the regime operates that we are able to understand how people succumb to its relentless propaganda and repression. Several times, characters profess horror about the fact that Americans must pay for everything and that they lack the protection and safety of having the government tell them what to do in every aspect of their lives. Jun Do says he doesn't think he could ever feel free in the US; that everything in North Korea makes simple, clear sense and it's the most straightforward place on earth.
The book can be confusing, as it jumps from one narrator to another, one time period to another, one style to another, with no explanation. But it's so vividly written, I didn't worry about the shifts and came to enjoy the crazy-quilt style. In an interview of Adam Johnson by author Richard Price, Price describes the book as a collision of many genres: bildungsroman, prison narrative, sea story, romantic drama, escape thriller, comic picaresque, Korean heroic opera. I'd have to add in agitprop to make a complete listing of genres represented. I didn't feel like I needed an explanation of why it's written this way, but it was still interesting to hear Johnson's answer that he sees his book as a "trauma narrative," in which a survivor of traumatic experiences tells stories that are similarly disjointed and that "bend and mix genres as characters attempt to patch their stories back together using the stories they find around them."
This is one of the most unusual, riveting, touching and unforgettable books I've read. Recommended.
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson is set in modern day North Korea. North Korea epitomizes Orwellian horror. This is a country where you can be condemned for no more reason than that the poster of Kim Jong Il on your wall has a torn corner, where children spy on their parents and starvation is a way of life. In Korea, the story about a person is what is important, not the person. If the story changes, then the person had better change himself to fit. Every day there are public service announcements telling the stories of the heroes and enemies of the state.
The protagonist, Jun Do, is named for one of the "heroes of the revolution", a man who committed suicide to prove himself worthy of the revolution. Jun Do's father, the orphan master, never openly acknowledges his son as such and "proves" his love by being more cruel to him than to the orphans in his care. An orphan's lot in North Korea is grim beyond Dickins' tales of early industrial England. Their lives are brutal, short and exploited.
Our protagonist becomes a tunnel soldier, trained in zero light taekwando. He is then conscripted into becoming a kidnapper working in Japan to provide selected individuals to serve Pyongyang's desires. He is successful as a kidnapper and is rewarded by being trained to become an English translator, doing radio surveillance on board a fishing vessel where the sailors all have their wives' pictures tattooed on their chests. He is selected to accompany a State visit to the USA. The visit is something of a humiliation for North Korea and Jun Do is sent off to prison where he kills and takes the place of one of the heroes of modern North Korea, Commander Ga, and falls in love with Ga's wife, Son Moon, a famous movie star.
This gripping tale is told by alternating propaganda from Kim Jong Il and the Pyongyang regime with the often grim reality of the protagonist, the orphan master's son. The propaganda takes the form of stories about the characters themselves, both as heroes and enemies of the State. There is wild adventure, amazing courage, brutal torture and true love.
Adam Johnson has written a masterful tale, a love story, a page-turner with philosophical overtones, and adventure thriller. I recommend this book highly, but it is most definitely not for the faint of heart and most assuredly not for children. Read this and weep for cruel fate and rejoice in the power and nobility of true love.
The Orphan Master's Son introduced me to a style of writing that was initially uncomfortable: trauma narrative. The author teaches creative writing at Stanford, so he crafts the shifts in perspectives and chronology, and uses vehicles of narration such as propaganda loudspeakers to assist in moving the story along while adding depth to the North Korean experience.
Much of my understanding of the purpose of the propaganda and seemingly pointless interchanges between characters didn't occur until the last half of the book, as the author slowly brings all the fractured pieces together, much in the way a real life investigation might progress, with a piece of evidence here, a testimony there, etc.
In retrospect, I can say that it was a book well worth reading, both for the gritty understanding of a ravaged country under the control of a mad man, and for an appreciation of the art of trauma narrative.
I wouldn't read this as a bedtime story to children. I was horrified by the torture, casual violence, miserable living conditions, and the way the demented mind of a leader can pervade and twist all of reality for an entire nation. It's also a lot of pages. As I waded in and got lost, horrified, and a bit traumatized, myself, I almost put it down and walked away. I'm glad I persisted, because the end result was every bit as satisfying as the movie "Casablanca," referred to in this story for analogy purposes. Moreover, I now think back over that movie and shift my perspective to a trauma narration, which adds even greater understanding to the motivations of its characters.
This new perspective shift is a gift from the author, seen by some as a "towering literary achievement." And perhaps it is. To find out, hike up your emotional britches and wade in.
I have to admit that I bought this book due to the large number of "5 star reviews" so I settled in figuring I'd be up all night
reading this novel. I was wrong. The book is a beautifully written book, but at the same time, it's a tiring book to read. The main
character, Jun Do, finds himself in the insane world of North Korea where he ends up in prison and kills a famous General who is
in prison (going to prison in North Korea doesn't take much....the paranoia of the government puts the famous General in prison
for no real legitimate reason). Jun Do finally finds himself back out into the insane world of North Korea where he
then replaces the General and the role the General had to his beautiful wife (confused? So was I!). The author has apparently done
a lot of homework in learning how the North Korean people survive in a nation full of lies, deceit and political paranoia.
The book's plot and the way he wrote the book moved around too much. I had to put it down and then pick it up and re-read a page or pages to figure out what was happening to the various characters. The fascination of North Korea and the propaganda speeches in the book are scary, haunting and gives a great insight into the psyche of the North Korean government and its power over its people, but this book just wore me down and when it was over
I found that to review it and give it more than three stars would be fair. It's a good read, not a great read.
on October 8, 2012
Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son is so finely observed and carefully wrought a novel - "novel": this time, the word seems both perfect and perfectly inadequate - of North Korea today that it might have begun its life as history or journalism, except for the fact that it is wholly the work of the author's imagination. True, Johnson made a brief, carefully chaperoned trip to North Korea, and many of his facts and vignettes, such as the kidnappings from Japan or the detailed accounts of North Korean prison life, draw on written sources. But as is the case with North Korea and its Stalinist approach to "truth" in general, the line here between fact and fiction is imperceptible, and it's a credit to Johnson's art that he transforms the otherwise wholly unbelievable into something quite plausible, believable, even, we must wonder, perhaps authentic. And so it is that one prize-winning journalist/East Asianist who writes with special authority on North Korea, Barbara Demick - whose book "Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea" drew on nine trips to the North and seven years of discussions with North Koreans - says Johnson has "managed to capture the atmosphere of this hermit kingdom better than any writer I've read."
Others have discussed the book's character, events, and particulars. I don't think I can comment on the book's contents or plot in any detail without spoiling it for others. I'll just note that Johnson creates mystery and certainly drew me in, gradually, to an unconventional, non-chronological journey of discovery, told in three voices - the eponymous tunnel rat, official kidnapper, and intelligence officer Park Jun Do (isn't his given name reminiscent of "John Doe"); the nameless interrogator and biographer who chronicles the second half of the book; and the blaring impersonal voice of The Regime, the official propaganda "chorus" that comments on the action out of the loudspeaker in every North Korean home, workplace, and public space. The result is a fiercely realized version of a world about which 99 percent of his readers will know nothing, or surely very little, and a complex web of interwoven lives lived in a world we can scarcely imagine.
Isn't that the very thing many of us hope to find when we crack open a book?
The range of Johnson's invention is near miraculous, down to the consistently strange expressiveness and turns of phrase of colloquial English as its sounds coming from North Korean sources (read the English-language version of Rodong Sinmun and you'll know what I mean) and a chilling portrait of the "Dear Leader" - yes, one of Johnson's central characters and reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn's Stalin in "The First Circle." But most marvelous of all are Johnson's convincing distillation of humanity amid what must strike the reader as madness and the many ways in which he explores, imagines, and depicts the minds of people struggling for survival in a world for which there is little or nothing to live.
All that said, this book is not for all tastes. It's literary, even (horrors) META-literary. It causes the reader to puzzle, to grapple with ambiguity, to confront moral dilemmas out of context. Like viewers of a David Lynch movie, readers may wonder "where in the world are we here?" and feel a need to suspend the human desire for narrative closure. In the end, I found the book's narrative logic compelling and the payoffs powerful, all loose ends knotted, and not in particularly pat ways. Johnson's North Korea is complex, with wheels within wheels, and resolution isn't going to be clean and neat.
For me, The Orphan Master's Son stands as something of a miracle of human creation, with a compelling portrait of another species of human creation - a systematically horrific one - from which we'd rather avert our eyes but, in this telling, cannot.
I visited the 'truce village' at Panmunjom over 20 years ago, and it was easily the spookiest place I'd been then or since. We got to enter the negotiation building, and it's the one place where you get to step foot into North Korea itself.
That spooky, ghostly feeling is captured impressively in "Orphan Master's Son." In a sea of often derivative fiction, this stands alone as something I have never seen quite this way before. North Korea comes alive in an awful, painfully realistic way.
We don't know exactly how realistic it is, but that doesn't entirely matter - it IS fiction, after all. The author does a good job of making his characters speak like real people; he doesn't use stilted dialogue, but remembers that people are people everywhere; informal conversations will probably sound like that all the time, whether it's the US or Korea. I was stationed in South Korea for a year, and the Korean soldiers I met were like the US soldiers - we all talked and acted pretty much the same way for a bunch of teenage guys.
The book's "flaw," is a confusing structure, and there are a variety of times where I thought it was not serving the story. But - when I got to the end, it all made sense. So you just have to bear with it. I think if you go into it expecting the structure to be a little awkward at times, that will help - it will all come together.
Is it believable? Eh, probably not. I had to suspend disbelief a few times, but again, who cares? I DID care about the protagonist, and most of the characters he met along the way, even the bad guys. If there were times I didn't entirely buy the overall premise or the situation, that was okay.
I gave this book five stars mostly because it is so imaginative and different. Needless to say, it's also well-written. I read a lot of books, and this is one of just a few where I actively looked forward to my reading time, simply because I was excited to see what would come next.
on November 12, 2012
I read this book because it came highly recommended from several Slate journalists, and as a policy wonk who tends to immerse myself and my "pleasure" reading in domestic topics and concerns, I thought this would be an artful way to learn about life in North Korea. Indeed, the novel depicts North Korea in detail and through characters in a way that makes you want to take back any other time you used the word "bleak," as those prior uses now seem melodramatic. The novel's topic was especially powerful to read as our 2012 elections in the U.S. unfolded, and I have to give credit to the author for going back and forth in time in a creative way. But beyond these quasi-compliments, I give The Orphan-Master's Son a low rating because it was a near-total slog to read. About a third of the way in, I would have given it up if not for my sheer stubbornness. I know very, very, very well that the book is 443 pages long because damn if I didn't check my Kindle progress every 5 minutes. I know that I am in the minority in giving this book a low rating, but I wanted to speak up as a minority voice to share my criticisms. For example, I don't think it was necessary for the first half (about the main character's youth) to be as long as it was, and I have to believe that historical fiction of an oppressive, maniacal dictator and a country swathed in propaganda can be written in a way that is itself less oppressive to read. Some of the creative voice in this book - especially in the second part - is done by retelling periods of time out of order and from the perspective of different narrators, and I found this strategy to add to the book's density both because it was confusing and because you kept taking steps forward and then back. I've read plenty of artful narratives to which I did not constantly ask, "Will this book never end?" I don't intend to disrespect Adam Johnson's talents or the oppression under which North Koreans live every day, but if you - like me - treasure your free time and the reading you choose during it, I personally advise against this choice and hope that you will weigh this review along with the raves.
When I see reviews entitled something like "A Masterpiece" on Amazon, I often suspect they're hyperbole. But I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say this is one of the best books I've ever read, and as a compulsive reader for over 20 years, that's saying something.
Without spoiling anything, the novel starts much like you'd expect a novel about North Korea: it's foreign, bleak and disturbing. The first part of the book introduces us to Pak Jun Do -- the Orphan Master's Son of the title -- and it progresses steadily until you think you know what to expect from this novel. But at the end of Part I (about 25% through) the author shifts the story so surprisingly, so audaciously, I couldn't help but pay closer attention. Once I was hooked, I couldn't put the book down.
The Orphan Master's Son is one of those great novels, like The Life of Pi, that's both accessible and profound. It takes you to emotional places you didn't think you'd go, and yet by the end it all seems inevitable that you'd end up there. The author also did an incredible job rendering every nuance of the North Korean social climate. It's as if someone who lived there all his life wrote The Orphan Master's Son.
Mr. Johnson's storytelling is so masterful, it took me back to the feeling I had when I first fell in love with reading. I imagine this hauntingly beautiful novel will stay with me for many years.
I would actually give this book 3.5 stars. I enjoyed it and thought it was a good story. So I'll list the pros first:
Even though a lot of other reviewers did not like the writing style, I found the writing very appealing. I loved the way the author mixed the first person, the third person and a narrative over a radio program to tell the story. It made the book a lot more interesting and was one of the big reasons I stuck to the book and kept reading. Very unique and refreshing writing style. I loved it.
Another thing that I really liked about the book is that it almost seemed like there was some magical realism in there. I don't mean a Marquez, "A hundred years of solitude" magical realism, but a masterful manipulation if you will, where you suspend disbelief but don't even really know that you're doing it. At first, I thought some of the storyline quite unbelievable, but then I found myself suspending disbelief, not because the author explained anything, but just because of the way the story was told and moved along. It's very hard to explain, but it was very enjoyable to read.
Finally, it's an interesting story that certainly holds your attention.
Now to the cons:
I thought some aspects of the book were so over the top that it detracted from the story.
For example, the torture scenes. I understand that the author wanted to get across the notion that torture and inhumane treatment are common in North Korea. So he describes one torture/inhumane treatment scene, then another, and then another and then another and it goes on and on and on throughout the entire book. You don't have to hit the reader over the head again and again with the same concept for us to get it. The result of doing that and the fact that basically all main characters in the book are at some point exposed to torture, leaves the reader with the impression that the entire population of North Korea, at one point or another, will be tortured. Common sense and statistics alone tell you that this cannot be the case, yet the book certainly leaves that impression. I have lived in a third world country, under an extremely oppressive regime (not North Korea but another of the "axis of evil" countries) and know first hand the fear of torture and mistreatment running through certain cultures. It is, however, not as this book makes it out to be. The entire population doesn't walk around fearing torture 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Does it happen? Absolutely. Does it happen to everyone, constantly? Of course not.
Another big problem I found is that this book, in trying to put a human face on the North Koreans, actually ends up dehumanizing them to a great extent. This book leaves the impression that this is a nation of 25,000,000 zombies who work morning, noon and night, who are always starving, who have zero joy in their lives and in the end are either drained of all their blood, or have their organs harvested. As a result, they have lost all humanity. There is scene after scene of incredible cruelty amongst the citizens and I don't mean only the torture scenes. For example, the old man in the prison who is confused about why he's there and is crying out for help and the response from one of the other prisoners is: "why don't you die already!" Or when one of the characters is lying in his own feces and filth and has just been told that his entire family has been killed and someone pries the prisoner's wedding ring off of his finger while the prisoner begs to have that last remnant of his family left with him, to no avail. Or the girl who turns on her colleague for no apparent reason and suddenly convinces others to start physically torturing the colleague. There is countless examples of this that make you think that ALL North Koreans collectively have lost ALL of their humanity. The author's only attempt to balance this is when one of the characters who is so deep in trouble that he knows exactly what is going to happen to him, makes a few small gestures of kindness to others and in the end does one big act because he has fallen in love. For me, this does not offset 500 pages of everyone acting like savages.
I understand trying to get a point across, but when you go to either extremes, it takes away from the story. One extreme is the story that the Dear Leader wants you to believe about how North Korea is the greatest nation on earth and the other extreme is frankly, this book. Neither one is, or can ever be, an accurate protrayal of an entire nation.
Even though it's flawed, it's still a good read and that's why I give it 3.5 stars.
"The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson is an impressive novel about a man called Pak Jun Do's passage through life in a society isolated from the rest of the world. This is a story of sacrifice, love, and betrayal that takes place in the backdrop of contemporary North Korea.
As Jun Do's life unfolds before us we witness what it is like to be a citizen in a society where all life and thought are controlled by a dictatorship that through time has become hereditary. Adam Johnson brilliantly weaves the progression of Jun Do's various occupations from living in an orphanage as the "Orphan Master's" son to soldier, kidnapper, intelligence officer, political foreign representative, prisoner in a mining work camp, and feared member of the higher hierarchy. As the story of Jun Do evolves we become witness to the hardship and misery of living under conditions that could be brutal.
As we follow Jun Do through his tribulations we see the brutality of a regime that attempts to control all aspects of an individual's life. Constant propaganda broadcast through state controlled speakers placed in residents and public places apply mind control to a submissive populace. Quoting a thought of Jun Do from the book "they (the citizens of NK) live in a land where people have been trained to accept any reality presented to them." On his life's journey Jun Do discovers much about himself and manages to find love and freedom in a most unlikely way.
A little history may help some to understand the novel better.
At the closing days of WWII with Russia entering the war and crossing into Manchuria and then into Korea it was decided on to establish a line across Korea to keep the armed forces of Russia and the United States, fighting and accepting the surrender of the Japanese on the peninsula from coming into contact and causing an incident. The line decided upon was the 38th parallel of latitude because it cut the peninsula almost in half. After failed attempts of a free election in Korea in 1948 the Russian government established the Chosun Minjujui Inmun Kongwhakuk, the Korean Democratic People's Republic, in the north under the leadership of Kim Il Sung. Thus began the suppression of a submissive people that continues to this day.
Of note is the fact that after the end of World War II in 1945, two-thirds of Korea's people lived and farmed south of the 38th parallel, but almost the entire industry and mineral wealth of the country lay in the north. That a nation so rich in natural resources remains the darkest patch of land on this planet during night time (as revealed by satellite imagery) is a testament to what a tyrannical government is capable of.
Adam Johnson's research into details of living in North Korean breathes life into his characters while his writing skill keeps the reader wanting to know more of Pak Jun Do. Johnson's blend of fact with a fictional story is engrossing and entertaining.