Snapshot of an arduous March

By David Hill

American writer Adam Johnson.
American writer Adam Johnson.

A comedy set in North Korea? Now there's an oxymoron for you. Adam Johnson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is both anarchically funny and achingly poignant. Our anti-hero, Jun Do (as in John Doe) is born in an obscure industrial town during the reign of Dear Leader Kim Jong-il.

It's a tough time: "an arduous March", the official news channels call it, which means people are reduced to eating grass and fingernails. Jun Do has it even tougher: his sadistic father burns him with a hot coal shovel; sends him out barefoot into the winter ice. He's drafted into the military as a tunnel digger, then sent on grotesquely mishandled abduction expeditions to Japan. His incompetence earns him promotion (it's that sort of society), and he becomes an English interpreter, intercepting radio messages, ignoring chatter from what claims to be a space station, because everyone knows the United States is too backward to design such a structure.

Next, the Democratic People's Republic send him on an even more ludicrous diplomatic mission to Texas. It's a success, so the inverted, perverted logic of the regime inevitably sentences him to the infamous Prison Camp 33, where those who try to escape are stoned to death.

Exit Jun Do. Enter the Commander Ga, a man so reckless he refuses to bow to Dear Leader. Even more suicidally, he falls for the limpidly named actress Sun Moon, on whom DL's piggy eyes are already set. The plot twists towards an astonishing ending of sacrifice and empowerment.

Johnson has been to North Korea just once (and is unlikely to be invited again) but his evocations of its monstrous fictions, human rights abuses and Orwellian propaganda - hardwired loudspeakers blare inside every apartment and on every factory floor - carry dreadful conviction.

News broadcasts extol the nutritional values of pumpkin-rind soup, and report how doves flock to hover above Dear Leader's head, protecting him from the sun. A Government flight brings back motorcycles and 10,000 DVDs for the ruling elite, while mass shootings in the soccer stadium yield to the more productive punishment of organ harvesting.

It's a narrative veined with other twisted and surreal narratives, emblematic of a nation where telling the truth "is bad for people's health". A university professor is lobotomised for playing South Korean folk songs to his class.

Arching across years of privation and random violence, the book charges along, powered by despair, devotion, surreal shifts that echo the regime's equally bizarre nature.

Shocking and utterly compelling; tragic yet seamed with hope. You're not likely to read another novel like it this decade.

- NZ Herald

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