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The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize - Fiction) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 10, 2012
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, January 2012: It is only January, but Adam Johnson’s astonishing novel is destined to cast a long shadow over the year in books. Jun Do is The Orphan Master’s Son, a North Korean citizen with a rough past who is working as a government-sanctioned kidnapper when we first meet him. He is hardly a sympathetic character, but sympathy is not author Johnson’s aim. In a totalitarian nation of random violence and bewildering caprice—a poor, gray place that nonetheless refers to itself as “the most glorious nation on earth”—an unnatural tension exists between a citizen’s national identity and his private life. Through Jun Do’s story we realize that beneath the weight of oppression and lies beats a heart not much different from our own—one that thirsts for love, acceptance, and hope—and that realization is at the heart of this shockingly believable, immersive, and thrilling novel. --Chris Schluep
Adam Johnson on The Orphan Master's Son
When I arrived at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport a few years ago, my head was still spinning from a landing on a runway lined with cattle, electric fences and the fuselages of other jets whose landings hadn't gone so well. Even though I'd spent three years writing and researching The Orphan Master's Son, I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter in “the most glorious nation in the world.”
I'd started writing about North Korea because of a fascination with propaganda and the way it prescribes an official narrative to an entire people. In Pyongyang, that narrative begins with the founding of a glorious nation under the fatherly guidance of Kim Il Sung, is followed by years of industry and sacrifice among its citizenry, so that when Kim Jong Il comes to power, all is strength, happiness and prosperity. It didn't matter that the story was a complete fiction--every citizen was forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script. The labor camps were filled with those who hadn't played their parts, who'd spoken of deprivation instead of plenitude and the purest democracy.
When I visited places like Pyongyang, Kaesong City, Panmunjom and Myohyangsan, I understood that a genuine interaction with a North Korean citizen was unlikely, since contact with foreigners was illegal. As I walked the streets, not one person would risk a glance, a smile, even a pause in their daily routine. In the Puhung Metro Station, I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story. Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature? These mysteries--of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings--are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.
Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books and seek out personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors like Kang Chol Hwan proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships, forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Traveling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest laborer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one pre-written by the Party. To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan soldier to the Party leaders. And since Kim Jong Il had written the script for all of North Korea, my novel didn't make sense without writing his role as well.
|Anti-tank devices seen while traveling south from Pyongyang toward Panmunj ||DPRK soldier |
|Air raid sirens ||Revelutionary Martyr's Cemetery on Mount Taesong|
“An exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.” —Pulitzer Prize citation
“All of these elements—stylistic panache, technical daring, moral weight and an uncanny sense of the current moment—combine in Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, the single best work of fiction published in 2012. . . . The book's cunning, flair and pathos are testaments to the still-formidable power of the written word.” —The Wall Street Journal
“The Orphan Master’s Son performs an unusual form of sorcery, taking a frankly cruel and absurd reality and somehow converting it into a humane and believable fiction. It’s an epic feat of story-telling. It’s thrillingly written, and it's just thrilling period.” —Zadie Smith, Los Angeles Times
“A great novel can take implausible fact and turn it into entirely believable fiction. That’s the genius of The Orphan Master’s Son. Adam Johnson has taken the papier-mâché creation that is North Korea and turned it into a real and riveting place that readers will find unforgettable. This is a novel worth getting excited about, one which more than delivers on its pre-publication buzz… I haven’t liked a new novel this much in years, and I want to share the simple pleasure of reading the book. But I also think it’s an instructive lesson in how to paint a fictional world against a background of fact: The secret is research…It’s this process of re-imagination that makes the fictional locale so real and gives the novel an impact you could never achieve with a thousand newspaper stories. Johnson has painted in indelible colors the nightmare of Kim’s North Korea. When English readers want to understand what it was about — how people lived and died inside a cult of personality that committed unspeakable crimes against its citizens — I hope they will turn to this carefully documented story. The happy surprise is that they will find it such a page turner.” —The Washington Post
“Adam Johnson's remarkable novel The Orphan Master’s Son is set in North Korea, an entire nation that has conformed to the fictions spun by a dictator and his inner circle…Mr. Johnson is a wonderfully flexible writer who can pivot in a matter of lines from absurdity to atrocity…We don't know what's really going on in that strange place, but a disquieting glimpse suggesting what it must be like can be found in this brilliant and timely novel.” —Wall Street Journal
"A harrowing, clever, incomparable riff on life in Kim Jong Il's North Korea” —San Francisco Chronicle
“Magnificently accomplished…Part thriller, part coming-of-age novel, part romance, The Orphan Master’s Son is made sturdy by research…but what makes it so absorbing isn’t its documentary realism but the dark flight of the author's imagination…rich with a sense of discovery…The year is young, but The Orphan Master’s Son has an early lead on novel of 2012” —The Daily Beast
"Providing a rare glimpse into one of the world’s least known countries, Adam Johnson weaves a tale of hardship, romance, and redemption in North Korea in The Orphan Master’s Son." —National Geographic Traveler
“An incredibly vivid page-turner of a novel…Romance, coming-of-age tale, adventure and thriller all in one, this book is singular and not to be missed.” —The Huffington Post, 10 Best January Must-Reads
"The death of Kim Jong Il couldn't have come at a better time for novelist Adam Johnson. The Orphan Master’s Son is a richly textured political thriller about the hidden world of North Korea with all of its misery, violence and defiant acts of love under impossible circumstances. Stunning and evocative imagery abounds on every page.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Startling…Johnson's carefully layered story feels authentic...[He] writes light-footed prose, barely allowing harrowing glimpses of atrocity to register before accelerating onward. He resists the temptation to turn his subject matter into comic fodder, but never ignores the absurdity, provoking laughter with jagged edges that tends to die in your throat.” —Newsday
“Johnson’s novel accomplishes the seemingly impossible: an American writer has masterfully rendered the mysterious world of North Korea with the soul and savvy of a native, from its orphanages and its fishing boats to the kitchens of its high-ranking commanders. While oppressive propaganda echoes throughout, the tone never slides into caricature; if anything, the story unfolds with astounding empathy for those living in constant fear of imprisonment—or worse—but who manage to maintain their humanity against all odds. . . . Johnson juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“[A] fantastical, careening tale…Informed by extensive research and travel to perhaps the most secretive nation on earth, Johnson has created a remarkable novel that encourages the willing suspension of disbelief.…Johnson winningly employs different voices, with the propagandizing national radio station serving as a mad Greek chorus. Part adventure, part coming-of-age tale, and part romance, The Orphan Master's Son is a triumph on every level.” —Booklist (starred review)
“Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“[A] vivid, violent portrait of a nation…[a] macabrely realistic, politically savvy, satirically spot-on saga. Johnson’s metathriller, spiked with gory intrigues and romantic subplots, is a ripping piece of fiction that is also an astute commentary on the nature of freedom, sacrifice, and glory in a world where everyone’s “a survivor who has nothing to live for.” —Elle
“Ambitious, violent, audacious—and stunningly good.” —O Magazine
“Adam Johnson has pulled off literary alchemy, first by setting his novel in North Korea, a country that few of us can imagine, then by producing such compelling characters whose lives unfold at breakneck speed. I was engrossed right to the amazing conclusion. The result is pure gold, a terrific novel.” —Abraham Verghese
“An addictive novel of daring ingenuity; a study of sacrifice and freedom in a citizen-eating dynasty; and a timely reminder that anonymous victims of oppression are also human beings who love. A brave and impressive book.” —David Mitchell
“I've never read anything like it. This is truly an amazing reading experience, a tremendous accomplishment. I could spend days talking about how much I love this book. It sounds like overstatement, but no. The Orphan Master's Son is a masterpiece.” —Charles Bock
- Publisher : Random House; First Edition (January 10, 2012)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 443 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0812992792
- ISBN-13 : 978-0812992793
- Item Weight : 1.71 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.7 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #430,147 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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This a the story of Jun Do, a North Korean “John Do” whose jobs include kidnapping expatriated Koreans in Japan and a radio operator (and suspected spy) on a North Korean Fishing Boat who through an embellished encounter with the U.S. Navy becomes a National Hero. Becoming a National Hero is more a curse as he ends up paraded before a U.S. Senator in Texas in a naive attempt to embarrass the Americans. With the party going to America is on one Kim Jong-Il’s Secretary’s and Korean Hero, Commander Ga. When the American Summit doesnt go quite as planned. The real Commander Ga presumably disappears and Jun Do becomes Commander Ga because of a tattoo of Commander Ga’s wife, a North Korean movie star. Doesn’t make sense, read the book. This dream opportunity ends up with Jun Do, the new Commander Ga in a North Korean Torture Facility. The nonchalant way the interrogators view torture is inhuman. . There is no light at the end of the tunnel. There is no happiness. There is not a single bright moment. I have read a few books set in North Korea. And I have yet to read anything up beat. This is a country unlike any other country past or present. I think to call it Communist of Socialist is inaccurate. Even with the weakness of Communist Theory I don’t think this is what Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels nor even Mao Zedong had in mind. This is a complete autocracy. Where every individual thought is weighed against the honor of the great leader. An absolute paranoid culture where even the slightest misstep can be viewed as an affront to the great leader. Where the price to pay is that an already meager life can be made even more meager and full of more suffering. A country where the “official story”, true or not, is the truth. If that is the desired truth of the Great Leader. Truth is manufactured and made official. This reminds me much of George Orwell’s “1984”. If Orwell was predicting anything it was North Korea. “Thought Control” is North Korea’s bread and Butter. Absolutely crucial to its existence. Isolation of travel, information, culture, and ideas is how it’s accomplished. It’s been done so effectively in North Korea that I am not sure the North Korea people can be helped. The “Thought Control” is so effective I don’t think they know how wrong their Society is. The story is written so well I, as the reader, even became confused on who the real Commander Ga was (read the book and you’ll understand). A glimpse into a world you’ll find hard to believe exists. Frightening the degree to which the masses can be controlled.
I remember them all; Kirkwood's "Some Kind of Hero" (not the movie), Conroy's "Prince of Tides" & "The Great Santini", McMurtry's "Some Can Whistle" (by far his best). Recently? "All the Light We Cannot See", Tart's "The Goldfinch", Larry Brown's "Fay" & "Joe", Rick Bass' "Winter", "The Art of Racing in the Rain"...etc, etc. You get the picture, eclectic taste, hardly a scholar or critic.
When I opened the "Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson, I read the first three paragraphs and slammed it shut. I then traveled to the Dollar Tree and bought Lavender Ribbon. I wrapped the book, crossing it horizontally and vertically several times before tying a tight naval knot dead center, requiring a knife or pry-bar to enter.
Immediately I found an unabridged Audio version for next day delivery.
The next morning I took the Fed-Ex package, threw my bag in the back seat and headed West out of Nashville (without any destination selected or suggested).
My journey underway, I inserted the CD. Quickly, the Daily Radio Broadcast for all of the citizens of the Democratic Party of North Korea began. The broadcast is hard wired into homes, apartments, public buildings, open squares, factories, museums, government buildings, restaurants, hospitals, on trucks and cars driving down roads or parked by farm workers. EVERYONE hears it; everyone MUST HEAR IT.
I began to snicker, the absurdity, the laugh out loud content; this book was satire-a comedy. Then it changed. Not the message, not the tone, not the intent; my heart changed. In thirty seconds my mind flooded with denial. Emotions pricked the hairs on the back of my neck, desperation charged my nervous system. This is too real, too uncomfortable for serious consideration. I drove straight to Oklahoma City, stopping once for fuel, never STOPPING "The Orphan Master's Son". Ten and one half hours of wonder, shock, fear and lamentations. I checked into my hotel and squirmed all night thinking about the People's Democratic Country of North Korea (the "freest" democracy in the world).
At dawn the next morning I drive thru Whataburger, got my Sausage/Egg Biscuits and headed towards Kansas City and then, Western Nebraska. The CD's clipped and exclaimed, the narrator was my friend, I knew him. I was with him as he tuned his ancient radio deep in the hull of the fishing vessel, searching radio transmissions from the ether, headphones tight. Searching for conversations that would assist the "Dear Leader", helping him lead the People's Democratic Republic of North Korea into a paradise on earth for his beloved citizenry. My compassion for the protagonist became familial. The future was shared. I may have been in Northwestern Nebraska but my chest (above my heart) was being tattooed by a Russian Ship Captain, perfecting a likeness of Sun-Moon, the National, beautiful actress of North Korea, so chaste, so virginal, I would (metaphorically) carry it on my chest forever. The paradox that IS North Korea is infuriating...no it's perfectly sensible...no it's expected...no...it is about people, like you and me, seeking true identity. We are all orphans in one sense or another, seeking validation, seeking...? Love. It IS the human condition. This book has stuck with me. No, it's entered my soul. I finished the book somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, Northwest of Lander, Wyoming. Now I must return east, to Nashville, much wiser, with a huge sense of loss. My tattoo, my visits to Section 42 and the "machine"? They will remain...forever.
Top reviews from other countries
Bearing in mind this is fiction, the narrative still projects a powerful real life message - something I an unlikely to forget anytime in the future.
I question how much information it gives you about life in North Korea as the author only spent a week there as far as I am aware but this is a novel and as such it is clever and enjoyable. If you want fact then read 'Nothing To Envy' by Barbara Demick, another excellent read but about the lives of real people who had lived in North Korea.