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The Orphan Master's Son

Adam Johnson's chilling but wonderfully written novel about present-day North Korea ranks as a contemporary 'Darkness at Noon.'

By David Holahan / February 27, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son By Adam Johnson Random House 464 pp

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The novel begins and ends with the omnipresent Loudspeaker that continually assaults North Koreans in their homes with surreal statist news and tall tales. The “starving” Americans are “pirates” perpetually poised to launch a sneak attack; America is a degenerate nation rife with, among myriad other horrors, “illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms.” North Korea, of course, represents the pinnacle of human progress, where the odd famine is merely an “Arduous March.”

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Despite its dark mission, the Loudspeaker inadvertently dispenses meaningful information on occasion, as when it cautions citizen to keep snares set for pigeons out of the reach of young comrades. Needless to say, this national pastime is not “catch and release.” Other staples of the North Korean diet, particularly in the prison mines, include a high protein oxen repast that leaves the source alive, well, and lowing.  Extreme North Korean fare is not for the squeamish.

It is against the Loudspeaker and its relentless stories that Pak Jun Do and his fellow travelers struggle to find their own voices.  Establishing one’s own identity, making personal choices, or nurturing a nascent conscience are risky business, and inherently subversive. They can get you killed, or worse. When things go from bad to worse in North Korea, life can lose the last shred of appeal. Many characters in the book have a prized can of fruit handy, infused with botulism, for themselves and their families. At least they get to decide when and how they die.

Despite its grim subject matter, The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s second novel, is a wonderfully written and gripping, rich in symbolism, and replete with quirky characters, from the Dear One (leader Kim Jong-il, who died last year) to the latest apple of his eye, a naked American nighttime rower. Johnson, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University, will be turning away students next semester. His latest creation is worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence with “Darkness at Noon” and “1984.” It is a reminder of our potential for depravity, our capacity for deliberate, institutional evil.

On the slightly less gloomy side, North Korea is not succeeding, either materially or ideologically. Many of Johnson’s characters remain human at their core. They commit random acts of subversion, aimed not at regime change but at reaffirmation of their inherent humanity. When a seaman defects in a life raft, the rest of the crew concocts a “heroic” yarn that will save his family and themselves from collective punishment. Jun Do submits to a shark bite to make the tale plausible.  The system encourages such conspiracies.

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