From video clips of citizens openly weeping over their Dear Leader to the painful stories of those who survived the country’s brutal work camps, the December death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il demonstrated anew what a functioning dystopian society looks like.
In the most masterful of coincidences, Adam Johnson, a creative writing teacher at Stanford University, spent the past six years working on what would become The Orphan Master’s Son. As it turns out, this, his second novel, is precisely the work of fiction to help us comprehend the complex psyche of North Korea, ruled by a man so besotted with films that he directed several and kidnapped key figures to star in them.
Johnson’s thrilling, genre-bending tale, set in North Korea, tracks Pak Jun Do from a childhood surrounded by orphans (his father runs a work camp) and haunted by his own lost mother, through to an adulthood spent in tunnels, on a naval ship worthy of Patrick O’Brian, in grim prisons where he was tortured, and finally within Kim’s orbit as a worthy adversary. As he rises up the ranks, Jun Do sheds identities, falls in love with an actress, and comports himself with the bearing of the hero he knows he must always be, even if tragedy looms with unbearable certainty. What truly marks The Orphan Master’s Son as a feat of literary alchemy is that the high entertainment factor never lets readers off the hook: there’s no forgetting North Korea’s real horrors.