Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's SonThe Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Around the World: 34 of 52 books (North Korea)

This book was a slow burn, and dense to read, but in the end, completely worth it. The first half is the story of Jun Do, from orphan in North Korea to kidnapper to spy; the second half interweaves his continued bizarre story with an interrogator and the loudspeakers that spin every event to the Dear Leader's favor (Kim Jong Il).  Time ceases to be linear at that point, and it takes a while to unravel the events from the characters.

It was interesting to have an element of the characters living in self-delusion, where the reader knows better, and even they know better, but for survival they go through crazy lies on a daily basis. This is particularly true of Jun Do, as he minimizes the description of what is actually going on, but the reader has to read between the lines. It smacks of other dystopian novels, reminding me of Orwell, and Lem, and Zamyatin. Except this is an attempt at a portrayal of a society that could be like this. I'm not going to say this book taught me about North Korea as other reviewers have done. This is a work of fiction. But so many of the stories we hear are bizarre, and this book attempts to explain some of them (in a sometimes humorous way). In fact, humor is an important element throughout The Orphan Master's Son, but more in the sense that you have to laugh or you'll cry. Oppression is ridiculous insanity.

One of the best moments is when Jun Do gets sent to Texas for a state visit, very funny because of the misunderstandings and assumptions on both sides.

"Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change."

"...The sensation was allowed to rise up, up into his brain, and it was okay to perceive again, to recognize forgotten parts of his body as they hailed him. His lungs were more than air bellows. His heart, he believed now, could do more than move blood."

"The Americans have the saying 'Time heals all wounds.' But this is not true. Experiments have shown that healing is hastened only by self-criticism sessions, the inspirational tracts of Kim Jon Il, and replacement persons. So when the Dear Leader gives you a new husband, give yourself to him!" (loudspeaker)

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