“I reject your reality and substitute my own.” Review of “The Orphan Master’s Son” – the first great North Korean novel?




Ga thought about reminding the Dear Leader that they live 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.

Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master’s Son, p 418 (Uncorrected proof copy, UK Edition)


Suppose we picture North Korea as a gigantic film set, with everyone a conscripted extra.

Christopher Hitchens, Visit to A Small Planet, Vanity Fair, January 2011



Hitchens described Pyongyang as:  “an ‘as if” society. Uniformed female traffic cops do pirouettes at intersections, though there are no cars. Newspapers come out, though they contain no news. Restaurants produce menus of nonexistent dishes. At the airport, there are barely any planes. In the national art gallery—they understand that you have to have a national art gallery—almost all the paintings are of the same two people”.


All despots have the power to impose their own version of reality on their subjects, and North Korea remains the world’s most extreme example of the entire population of a country being co-opted into sustaining one dynasty’s vanity project. Hitchens’ piece is over ten years old but the accounts that continue to trickle out of the Hermit Kingdom suggest that little has changed. It’s lines like a character’s boast, “I’ve been on the internet ten different times,” that bring us up short in Adam Johnson’s remarkable new novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. They remind us that we’re evesdropping on a society so alien that at times his narrative of a North Korean Everyman reads like science-fiction. Living proof, if any were needed, that as Sherlock Holmes once observed, “Reality is stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent.”


Johnson takes that statement, turns it on its head and spins it around by setting his bildungsroman somewhere in the gap between the real North Korea and the official version, which probably comes closer than any other country on earth to being the creation of one man’s mind. Nobody gets to tell any stories in North Korea apart from the officially sanctioned ones, which constantly change, keeping the population in a state of permanent fear since any failure to acknowledge them will have dreadful consequences. Ironically, this makes at least some North Koreans remarkably creative people, continually striving to come up with a version of what has just happened to them that will please the Dear Leader and allow them to survive. This gives Johnson’s novel a surreal quality that is common to many accounts of life in the DPRK.  Its tone ranges from exquisite tenderness to accounts of gut-churning brutality, with a strong element of John Irving-style picaresque symbolism. At times it’s horrifying, or hilarious – sometimes both at once. (For an interesting account of North Korean humour, see this piece in The Huffington Post by Gabe Mizrahi, who holds the distinction of having produced the first ever podcast from inside the country).


Johnson originally intended to write a funny, ironic piece, called “The Best North Korean short story of 2005.” Then he began to read the testimonies of gulag survivors and was inspired to dig deeper. Much deeper. Wanting to discover, “what people ate for breakfast, what colour their clothes were, what thoughts filled their minds as they drifted off to sleep,” he eventually took the extraordinary step, for an American, of visiting the country personally. He became obsessed with North Korea, gathering information until eventually he was able to move beyond reportage and info-dump and inhabit the psyches of an extraordinary range of characters, up to and including the Great Leader himself.


For obvious reasons, there are virtually no Great North Korean Novels. There are smuggled personal accounts, and the testimonies of defectors, used by Barbara Demick in her book, Nothing to Envy, but Johnson points out that, being the end-product of severe trauma, these statements have their limitations:


“When life is about survival, rather than being human, people are less able to speak in terms of yearning, growth, discovery, change, and so on. How do you gain a deeper understanding of a person who’s been taught that expression is dangerous and that emotions can get you killed? What do you do when the only person who can tell a story is the least able to do so? This is where the limits of nonfiction become visible.”


Johnson’s painstaking research lends authority to his narrative and, initially, the voices of his characters seem muted and distant, their emotions opaque, even to themselves. As we get to know them better, however, this perspective begins to shift, sometimes in surprising ways. It is often the secondary characters that open up a rich vein of insight into this profoundly alien and disturbing society, their casual mentions of the unbearable that transform them from automata to real people. A couple of paragraphs about climbing up to a broken searchlight to harvest and eat the bodies of moths tells us all we need to know about the starvation rations of the prison camps. And when, after many pages, we do hit emotional paydirt, the effect is shattering.


Many clichés have been uttered over the years about love, loyalty, humanity and hope. Some happen to be true. In a world where everything can be taken from you, even your memories and your identities, the tattoo of a loved one on your chest acquires a new significance. It is also far from incidental that the two greatest emotional shifts experienced by the main characters are a direct result of watching movies, one a piece of nationalist propaganda redeemed by the integrity of its leading actress, the other Casablanca. The stories we invest in make us the people that we are. Kim Jong-il built vast private studios and kidnapped a South Korean starlet and her director husband to make his own version of Godzilla. He knew a thing or two about stories, and that was what made him so dangerous. And, above all else, this remarkable and haunting novel is a celebration of why the act of narration is so vital to the human spirit, and so impossible to silence.


NOTE: Johnson’s remarks are taken from a conversation with Richard Powers, published at the conclusion of the an uncorrected proof copy of the Doubleday UK edition of The Orphan Master’s Son. The UK edition will be released on 16 February 2012.






Also worth a look

An American In North Korea – Fascinating images and commentary from Joseph A Ferris III



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