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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
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Top customer reviews
Me: "I'm reading an amazing book right now"
Other: "Great, what's it called?"
Me: "The Orphan Master's Son"
Other: "Wow, interesting title - what is it about?"
Me: "Well, um, let's see, it's uh, um, it's about North Korea."
I just couldn't put into words what it was about until a while after I read it. The first part especially just had me dumbfounded by its intensity and desolation. I couldn't find the words.
Pak Jun Do is a young man who first lives in an orphanage but has convinced himself he is the son of the head of the orphanage and not just another orphan left behind when the parents have been denounced or otherwise packed away to work camps or prison. The orphans are named after the 114 North Korean heroes. Of course our protagonist's name is very much like "John Doe "who has an exact identify, ... It's just yet to be discovered." [p140]
In the first section Jun Do has a number of jobs: tunnel worker, kidnapper, and a listener on a fishing boat. In the second section he is Commander Ga. Through the story we see how it is possible to survive in North Korea: expect no freedom, love no one, accept the current reality as the only reality. When discussing his life with the Kim Jung Il "Ga thought about reminding the Dear Leader that they lived in a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them. He considered sharing how there was only one penalty, the ultimate one, for questioning reality, how a citizen could fall into great jeopardy for simply noticing that realities had changed." [p 418].
Through the course of events, Jun Do lands in Texas for a few hours and compares North Korean freedom with American freedom.
"How to explain that leaving its [North Korea's] confines to sail upon the Sea of Japan - that was being free. Or that as a boy, sneaking from the smelter floor for an hour to run with the other boys in the slag heaps, even though there were guards everywhere <i>because</i> there were guards everywhere - that was the purest freedom. How to make someone understand that the scorch-water they made from the rice burned to the bottom of the pot tasted better than any Texas lemonade?
'Are there labor camps here?' he asked.
'No', she said.
'Mandatory marriages, forced criticism sessions, loudspeakers?''
She shook her head.
'Then I'm not sure I could ever feel free here,' he said."[p 153]
How will Jun Do/Commander Ga act when given a chance to gain freedom, to experience love?
Freedom, love, sacrifice; the biography and importance of the individual - that's what this book is about.
I've now read three of the last four Pullitzer Prize winners for fiction (along with The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt and All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer. I loved those novels and this is every bit as good.
The Orphan Master's Son tells the story of a young man in modern North Korea. I thought I'd read about the depths of humanity in books about Nazi concentration camps and Stalin's gulags. North Korea is worse, much worse, because the regime's inhumanity affects the vast majority of citizens.
This book is beautifully written, with a viewpoint character who is (not surprisingly) rather numbed by all the excruciating experiences in his life. One thing that confused me was that halfway through was the way that we met a character who had (rather unbelievably) taken on another person's identity. I had trouble following things at this point.
The book is heart-breaking in the atrocities it describes, and amusing in places where we see the Koreans rewrite American "hospitality" and "friendliness" to be put-downs. It's definitely an eye-opener. But don't read it during a period where you're looking for something to revive your hope in humanity.
The portions of humorous relief come when DPRK expectations and interpretations of events clash directly with a visit to Texas and what Texans consider hospitality. The saving grace of the overall story is the evolution of the main character as he slowly discovers his ability to love and what the soul liberating experience it is to sacrifice for another human being. This story stayed with me long after the book ended and still lives with me when I see or read about abject cruelty anywhere. I even have a different perspective on our contentious messy political process. It may be outrageous, but our political aspirants are free to say anything and the journalists can report and challenge it all. We are free to be in contact with people around the globe and to consider all sides to an issue. More importantly, this book will make it clear why we must participate and never agree to be sheep, regardless of what political affiliation appeals to you. The old adage is true -- absolute power corrupts absolutely...right down to what we believe is our essential humanity.