Brilliant authenticity

2012-11-07 00:00

REVIEW: The Orphan Master’s Son

Adam Johnson


WHEN I first read this astonishing novel — a satirical look at the social and political life of North Korea — a few months ago, the reviewing of it baffled me.

Its wit, ingenuity and authenticity seemed to me to warrant far more than a few hundred words, but I felt I didn’t know enough about North Korea to do it justice. And so I set the book aside, only to be reminded of it recently by a short essay on that country that was included in the late Christopher Hitchens’s superb final compilation. In North Korea: A Nation of Racist Dwarves, having examined some aspects of life there, he asks: “Do these slaves really love their chains?”

Hitchens did not live to read Adam Johnson’s novel — nor did he see on TV the mass militarised festivities this year at the unveiling in Pyongyang of the two huge concrete outfitter’s dummies representing the “Great Leader”, Kim Il Sung, and the “Dear Leader”, Kim Jong Il. The latter, and the huge public displays of grief at the demise of each of these dictators, might have given him an affirmative answer.

The novel, though, might have given him pause. It relates the story of Jun Do, an orphan boy plucked from nowhere to become a state-sanctioned assassin, a kidnapper and a spy. He has no father but the state, and no sweetheart but Sun Moon, the greatest opera star who has yet lived and whose face is tattooed on his chest. Toughened by the brutal circumstances of his youth, by the hardships involved in simply staying alive in a state ruled by fear, and the presence of death round every corner, he not only survives but, almost magically, is transformed into Commander Ga. Ga is a respected and well-known officer, whose suddenly changed appearance no one apparently remarks on, simply because asking questions can be so dangerous that it’s probably best not to.

Through serious study and visits to North Korea, and with the aid of some educated North Koreans manifestly not in love with their chains, Johnson has thoroughly absorbed the atmosphere of that oppressed and deliberately isolated nation. He’s also gained, and can convey, a clear impression of life there, of the brainwashed condition of some inhabitants, and of the deliberately blinkered, amnesiac survival tactics used by others.

The book is brilliant, its hard-edged, sardonic humour balanced by kindliness. It’s still available in the bookshops, so don’t miss it.


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