Thursday, March 08, 2012

Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son

Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son is a powerful novel. It is sad, as any book about North Korea really must be, but it is also full of life and at times is even funny. At its core is the question of identity. Pak Jun Do was an orphan master's son and took an orphan's name. This means everyone believes he is an orphan even though he is not. That widespread belief, however, led the state to force him to do its dirty work for it, including kidnapping Japanese. He regrets it all and seeks some sort of redemption.

That would lead to an effort to sneak someone, the actress Sun Moon, out of the country. Aside from the main character, everyone in the novel--from the highest official to aged parents who never leave their apartment--drips with resignation. Anyone can disappear at any time, either murdered or sent to a camp, which is just an extended murder. You take great care about what you say to one another. Ultimately identity itself comes into question. A constant theme is the movie Titanic, which everyone seems to mention because the elites have seen pirated versions. The metaphor about a doomed voyage is blunt.

The descriptions of North Korea are bold and vivid--I felt the same impression years ago when I read Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park on the Soviet Union. This book is also unique because it dares to push the limits of verisimilitude. Kim Jong Il himself plays a recurring role, which could have come off quite badly, but it works well. Don't expect the novel to make you feel very good, but it'll stay with you.


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