The Orphan Master's Son
by Adam Johnson;
Random House ($26)
By Mike Fischer
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (MCT)
Read any good North Korean fiction lately?
I didn't think so.
In Adam Johnson's "The Orphan Master's Son," a terrific new novel about life under North Korea's recently deceased Kim Jong Il, we're told why:
"Real stories," "human ones," "could get you sent to prison, and it didn't matter what they were about." If a story "diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous."
Pak Jun Do, titular hero of Johnson's novel, therefore spends his formative years sticking to the script written for him. As an early mentor instructs him, "if a man and his story are in conflict" in North Korea, "it is the man who must change."
Raised in an orphanage even though his parents are alive — a paradox capturing the condition of every North Korean, for whom the only permissible parent is the leader himself — Jun Do joins the military as a teen to avoid starvation.
In succeeding years, he becomes captain of an incursion team, euphemism for tunnel assassins digging their way under — and spreading mayhem within — South Korea.
He does time with an abduction squad, making forays across the Sea of Japan and kidnapping unsuspecting Japanese citizens.
He learns English and becomes a radio monitor at sea, enjoys a brief career as a translator in negotiations with the United States and is then consigned to one of North Korea's horrific prison camps _ ensuring he won't share with others what he has seen abroad.
Most significantly, he falls in love with North Korean actress Sun Moon, prompting dreams that he might write his own story.
Unlike most Americans, Johnson has logged time in North Korea, and it shows.
Combining first hand observations with extensive but lightly worn research, he creates a textured, utterly convincing world — stuffed with details about what people eat and wear, how dilapidated factories and mines operate, what passes for culture, where people live and how they get around.
Johnson's attention to the minutiae and terror of everyday North Korean life is reason enough to read this gripping book.
But Johnson has given us much more.
Precisely because "Orphan Master's Son" pays such close attention to the reality it describes, Johnson gets his fingers into the barely discernible cracks in the monolith, tracing the gestures, words and parables through which stellar citizens reveal their hidden, disobedient and fully human selves.
"Orphan Master's Son" repeatedly reminds us that those selves are still capable of expressing forbidden love, while paying homage to "the human urge to be remembered."
Such moments are all the more powerful because they come to us through indirect or understated prose _ true to a world where, like Jun Do, one must learn to "say a lie while speaking the truth" and "make the pluck of a string contain a missing thing."
In the second half of his novel, Johnson helps us hear this sound of silence by adding two voices.
One is a broad — occasionally too broad — satire of North Korean propaganda. A second features an increasingly disillusioned interrogator charged with extracting Jun Do's confession.
As the novel hurtles toward its masterfully plotted climax, it becomes clear how easily either of these two stories could overtake Jun Do's own — further underscoring what he faces in trying to become master of his own destiny.
Does he succeed?
True to form in a novel that resists easy answers, there are multiple answers to that question. I won't be surprised if this novel lands on multiple best-of-year lists come December.
(c)2012 the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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