Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Adam Johnson's novel places readers in recent day North Korea--before the death of Kim Jong Il. The title character Pak Jun Do was raised among orphans by his father, the "orphan master," after his mother, a reputedly beautiful singer was taken away to the capital. His status is no higher than the true orphans, so he is taken to work in the dark mines. His ability to survive and even to excel working in the dark is significant throughout the novel. Early on, it leads to his being moved to other positions, working for the North Korean government on a boat fronting as a fishing boat, kidnapping Japanese citizens. During the long hours he spends working on the ship, listening to his radio, he is fascinated by the story of two American women rowing around the world--one rowing in the day, the other at night.
Most disturbing throughout the story is the government's tendency to take people from whatever they are doing, giving them no option but to accept whatever assignment awaits. Often when the official vehicle arrives, the citizens suspect they are being taken to their death.
Woven through the book, between accounts of Jun Do's experiences is the first person account of an official "biographer"--an idealistic young North Korean who records the stories of prisoners experiencing torture and eventual assassination. Living in an upper-floor apartment with his blind parents, he seems to need to deceive himself to keep doing the job he does. Other chapters present the voice broadcasting into the loud speakers in every North Korean home, the constant stream of propaganda fed by the "Dear Leader" to his "Comrades."
The most fascinating turn comes when Jun Do is conscripted, because of his language skills, for an official trip to the United States--Texas, to be exact--to negotiate for the return of North Korean property. While the visitors decide to interpret their experiences, once they return from the less-than-successful mission, as an exercise in humiliation (They were forced to eat with their bare hands--their spin on a good old fashion cookout), Jun Do encounters an American woman who makes a continued impact on his life.
Jun Do manages to use his unvoiced awareness of the need to maintain a good front, usually at the expense of the truth, allows him eventually to assume the identity of General Ga, a former hero, now out of favor with Kim Jung Il because of his arrogant unwillingness to bow, married to the foremost national actress.
Not only did I genuinely care about the characters, but I learned a lot along the way about a country that remains shrouded in mystery.
For more information about the author, check out the Lemuria blog: http://blog.lemuriabooks.com/2012/01/the-story-behind-the-pick-the-orphan-masters-son-by-adam-johnson/