The hero in The Orphan Master's Son is a bit like the Forrest Gump of North Korea. American author Adam Johnson sends his everyday man, Pak Jun Do, on a series of adventures that encapsulates the most notorious and ridiculous aspects of the enigmatic regime.
Jun Do (a homonym of John Doe) is raised in an orphanage, trains in the army, survives the Arduous March famine of the 1990s, infiltrates South Korea as a tunnel assassin beneath the DMZ, kidnaps people from Japan to work as English teachers and singing coaches, becomes a spy on a fishing boat, is instrumental in several defections, is sent on a diplomatic mission to Texas, is dispatched to a prison camp, assumes the identity (and the movie-star wife) of the Minister of Prison Mines, becomes a celebrated national hero (twice), is tortured in an underground bunker in Pyongyang, and has several bizarre encounters with Kim Jong Il.
The hugely entertaining story gets more surreal and addictive by the page, and humour illuminates even the darkest moments, but it's also a haunting examination of the powerlessness (and, occasionally, the power) of the common man in an oppressive regime. At its most intimate level it is also about love and sacrifice, and having the courage and humanity to throw off the conditioning of a lifetime and chose loyalty to one's friends over loyalty to the state.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Jun Do's destiny follows a course preordained by the state. In the second, he takes advantage of serendipitous circumstances to map his own path.
Two other narrators are introduced in part two: an unnamed interrogator fighting loneliness and his conscience, and propaganda loudspeakers blasting their ridiculous and disturbing translation of events.
One of the most heartbreaking images is that of the interrogator's elderly parents, whom he keeps locked up in his apartment on the top floor of a high-rise without an elevator for their own safety. They've been so heavily indoctrinated that they're afraid to speak freely to even their own son in their home, fearing that he will denounce them or that they will be overheard or picked up by surveillance. At one point the son asks, "Father, is it just about survival?" His father, naturally, pretends he hasn't heard.
Johnson is a creative writing teacher at Stanford University, and his writing style is a lesson in unaffected yet descriptive and powerful prose. When Jun Do drinks tequila in Texas, it's described as: "tart and dry, it tasted like thirst itself". When he observes the Texas senator giving his dog treats for obeying an order, "Jun Do understood that in communism, you'd threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes".
I didn't want this book to end. When it did, the first thing I wanted to know was: how factual is this North Korea? The world knows that North Korea kidnapped Japanese citizens, but do they really finish off inmates in prison camps by draining their blood for the hospitals of Pyongyang? Do dump trucks really forcibly round up random people in the streets of Pyongyang to harvest rice in the country for a day, in their business suits? Did Kim Jong Il really re-gift to the Americans rhino-horn bookends from Robert Mugabe?
But then, what is truth in a regime that exists in the fog of an alternate reality created by propaganda, a regime built on the illusion that the country is controlled by the masses. As you read this book you'll wonder if even its title - the foundation of Jun Do's identity - is a lie.
Ironically, Johnson has said that he resisted incorporating some of the weirder "truths" about Kim Jong Il because they were too absurd for a fiction reader to swallow. Johnson did about as much research as an outsider could do - he visited the country on a North Korean government-controlled trip, during which he was forbidden from speaking with ordinary citizens, he read and consulted widely, and he interviewed North Korean expats.
He could have set The Orphan Master's Son in an imaginary dystopia, as George Orwell did with the allegorical Animal Farm, but his decision to use the real setting has attracted criticism from some of the few people outside (or inside) North Korea in a position to distinguish between truth and rumour. He's also been criticised for making light of a dark regime.
There might be some truth to that, but it must be remembered that this is a work of fiction. And a very, very good one.
The Orphan Master's Son is released today by Doubleday, $37.99.