North Koreans have only seven options of government-approved hair cuts. They have loudspeakers in their homes that relay government propaganda 24/7 (“The Inuit people are a tribe of isolated savages that live near the North Pole. Their boots are called mukluk. Ask your neighbor later today, what is a mukluk? If he does not know, perhaps there is a malfunction with his loudspeaker, or perhaps it has for some reason become accidentally disconnected. By reporting this, you could be saving his life the next time the Americans sneak-attack our great nation.”) If you don’t have a picture of Dear Leader above your doorway, you’re immediately sent to prison. It is illegal to speak to a foreigner. The elderly have the honor of retiring to a beautiful island with pure white sands because that is what they deserve after a lifetime of devotion to the Dear Leader, but when sailors pass this island, those white sands are ominously empty.
Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son is the brilliant and darkly comedic work that opened my eyes to this real-life Orwellian nightmare. Elle hailed it as “[a] vivid, violent portrait of a nation … [a] macabrely realistic, politically savvy, satirically spot- on saga.” And the Wall Street Journal called it “[a] remarkable novel…We don’t know what’s really going on in that strange place, but a disquieting glimpse suggesting what it must be like can be found in this brilliant and timely novel.”
Readers follow Pak Jun Do, who was raised in an orphanage (ran by his father, who never officially claimed him). In North Korea, orphans choose their names from a list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution and Jun Do, even though he isn’t an orphan, picks the name of a man who made the ultimate sacrifice of killing himself to prove his worth to his fellow soldiers. After leaving the orphanage, Jun Do begins a life of ultimate sacrifice: first as a tunnel fighter and later a professional kidnapper, a radio operator aboard a fishing vessel spying on foreign submarines, and in one hilarious section, a diplomatic envoy sent to Texas.
In his most courageous act in the second half of the novel, Jun Do impersonates Commander Ga, the nation’s hero and treacherous rival to Kim Jong II, in order to save the woman he loves – Commander Ga’s wife, actress Sun Moon. For reasons I won’t give away, Kim Jong II publicly acknowledges him as Commander Ga (if acknowledged as such by the Dear Leader, he is Commander Ga without contest). But the Dear Leader is always playing intricate games of subterfuge, and the life Jun Do captures can’t last forever.
This is a literary achievement of astonishing magnitude, with an intense complexity and comedic timing that I haven’t had the pleasure of reading in quite some time. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times hailed it as “a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice.”
Be sure to check out Johnson’s article on The Daily Beast about his account of traveling to North Korea. If you are interested in more novels about North Korea, be sure to check out the debut novel All Woman and Springtime by Brandon Jones, which we’re publishing in April 2013.
- Kelly Bowen, Publicity Manager