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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. The book traces the journey of Jun Do, who for years lives according to the violent dictates of the state, as a tunnel expert who can fight in the dark, a kidnapper, radio operator, tenuous hero, and foreign dignitary before eventually taking his fate into his own hands. In one of the book’s most poignant moments, a government interrogator, who tortures innocent citizens on a daily basis, remembers his own childhood and the way in which his father explained the inexplicable: ‘...we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.’ In this moment and a thousand others like it, Johnson juxtaposes the vicious atrocities of the regime with the tenderness of beauty, love, and hope.” —Publisher's 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
Top Customer Reviews
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.Read more ›
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.Read more ›
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A glorious portrayal of the soul's ability to survive. Adam Johnson weaves an artful image of the hidden heart and the exposed one. I cried at the end.Published 1 day ago by Lynette R Mathews
I had been looking forward to reading Adam Johnson's work as the man has two Pulitzers (as far as I'm aware). Read morePublished 4 days ago by Sasha
Fantastic. Sticks with you for days and makes you think. Great writing. Get through the first chapter and it gets easier to digest.Published 7 days ago by Kathy Cohen
I didn't know much about North Korea, aside from the things that pop up in the news from time to time: missiles launched, threats made to the USA, Dennis Rodman. Read morePublished 7 days ago by S. Zendzian
Story well written. Absorbing read.
Feel I don't ever have to visit North Korea, never ever!