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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.'

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Nor can the Loudspeaker completely shape reality. North Koreans know about Disney World. They also realize that Kim Jong-il probably didn’t actually shoot 38 under par – with 11 holes-in-one – in his very first round of golf.  This bizarre news flash is recounted in the novel but it is not fiction; and the Dear One probably didn’t believe the report would be believed either. He was showing off, messing with his flock, daring them to make the almost irresistible jokes and risk oblivion. Satire is not a good career move in North Korea, unless you are the Dear One.

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Jun Do knows that there is an alternate reality out there.  He is a tunnel fighter who has traveled to South Korea surreptitiously, beneath the Demilitarized Zone. From other soldiers who have scouted enemy territory he learns about the machines that hand out money, the giant TVs, and the well-fed city people who follow dogs around, not to kill them for food but to clean up after them. The Loudspeaker has always insisted that South Korea is plagued by widespread poverty and famine.

Jun Do chooses not to see these southern wonders with his own eyes, or defect, because he knows this would make a lie out of everything he has done in the name of his country. He is not a cut-and-run kind of guy, but he has his limits. In his next assignment, as part of a kidnapping squad, he can see clearly from the bright lights of Japan at night that there has been no Arduous March there. He also knows that what he is doing is wrong, and if and when he gets an opportunity he will try to make amends.

Besides translating the political anathema that is North Korea into the personal realm, Johnson has penned a ripping good thriller, full of surprises and derring-do, blood and guts, cowardice and heroics. If the action is not always entirely plausible, all is forgiven. The reader wouldn’t have it any other way; and heck, North Korea is so strange, so remote from our experience, who knows what might be possible there. It should be noted that the author has been there and clearly has done his research.

What’s to become of such a place? The woman who helps Jun Do survive in the prison mines knows: “[I]t cannot last. One day all the guards will run away, they’ll head that way, for the border. There will be disbelief, then confusion, then chaos, and finally a vacuum. You must have a plan ready. Act before the vacuum is filled.”

David Holahan is a regular contributor to the Monitor’s Books section.

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