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565 of 582 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Meet Jun Do, October 7, 2011
This review is from: The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize - Fiction) (Hardcover)
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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.
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Comments

Tracked by 7 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 15 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 11, 2012 10:01:44 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Feb 11, 2012 10:03:17 AM PST
I read this novel after reading Barbara Demick's book, a study of living defectors, or escapees, from North Korea. The fact that the free nations of the world and our leaders can do nothing about this prison of a country is dismaying to horrifying to me. The novel about Jun Doe/aka Commander Ga, was a page turner. I could have finished it sooner but one has to take breaks from pain of such an existence. So I agree with this review re the entertainment/creative value of Adam Johnson's story.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 11, 2012 12:41:43 PM PST
Joyann, thanks for your comment and, especially, thanks for the reference to Barbara Demick's book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. I haven't read it, but now that I have some distance from The Orphan Master's Son, I think I would like to.

Posted on Mar 3, 2012 1:17:05 PM PST
Sad Book says:
I don't understand who the man is in Part 2 who goes home to his Mother & Father in their apartment on the 22nd floor!!

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 3, 2012 1:44:21 PM PST
I can't remember his name, but he's Interrogator Number Six; the guy who uses the "autopilot" machine on subjects.

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 4, 2012 1:05:25 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Sep 13, 2012 10:14:31 AM PDT
I don't recall his name but he tells a good part of the second half of the book from the perspective of a man who is working for torture 'light' in the Kim Jong Il chamber of horrors.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 13, 2012 9:21:15 AM PDT
LS says:
It would be better not to give away so much of the plot.

In reply to an earlier post on Sep 13, 2012 10:16:20 AM PDT
Okay, I edited my post. Read the book. It is a great story, and enlightening re N. Korea.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 17, 2013 3:38:14 PM PDT
But it is really our place to do anything about this? It is indeed their country and whether we like it or not, it isn't ours or any other free nations say so. That is the very problem with the USA....it butts into business that doesn't concern them "directly" without being asked. Why do you think the USA is so hated around the world.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 21, 2013 7:50:33 AM PDT
Yes, and we no longer even use the word, "blowback," as we increasingly deny the intrusion and violence we inflict on the rest of the world. I read recently that we are building a "military base" near Venice, Italy, and the people there protested this understandably. Who do we think we ARE??!!
And all while our infrastructure at home looks more and more like third world countries.....???

In reply to an earlier post on May 20, 2013 8:20:37 PM PDT
S. Smith says:
Kat and Wynne: I totally agree. USA no longer has the credibility to hold the moral imperative, if we ever did. I'm afraid our political leaders have a terminal case of ethnocentrism.
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