Political strokes in North Korea

Sat, Feb 25, 2012, 00:00

FICTION: The Orphan Master’s SonBy Adam Johnson Doubleday, 344pp. £18.99

IN THIS, HIS SECOND NOVEL, the US writer Adam Johnson enacts a feat of sorcery that is audacious and utterly unsettling: he imagines a country that has long seemed almost beyond imagination. The North Korea of recent history, into which Johnson plunges his young hero, Jun Do, is everything we have suspected it of being. It is cruel, dysfunctional and bizarre. Yet so vividly does T he Orphan Master’s Sonevoke this place and its strangenesses, and with such intensity does Johnson portray its landscapes, its moods and its dynamics, that North Korea, for the reader, comes to life much more fully, and even more unsettlingly, than this grim frame of references could allow. Johnson’s daring vision delivers a North Korea that is all those things and more.

Jun Do, raised in a work camp for orphans and trained to kill in absolute darkness, has a control and a precision that are useful to the state. First he is “recruited” as a professional kidnapper for the court of Kim Jong-il. Proficient in English, he is next assigned to monitor radio transmissions aboard Junma, an ancient fishing vessel, on the East Sea, and afterwards to translate on a government mission to Texas. After this, the system takes him. While it has him, he does something to change the shape of its grip and the course of his life.

And so The Orphan Master’s Sonis an odyssey through dark waters, although it is also a thriller, a picaresque, a satire and a love story. Johnson has a remarkable eye for detail. There are moments, things glimpsed, that take the breath away, whether with their quiet grace or with their unthinkable evil. He writes of the weight of blood bags as the life of people is snatched away; of the sight of thousands of American sports shoes adrift far out to sea; of the voice of a night rower, a young American woman attempting to traverse the world, as it is picked up on a ship radio; of the way some trees planted after the Korean famine grew strangely because they sprouted from seeds in famished stomachs. He writes of torture, of hard labour and of pain in ways that are difficult to forget.

His gift for atmosphere, and for the deeply complex interactions that take place between cornered and petrified people, seems to arise out of instinct, so purely does it strike home on the page. When he is writing at this level, his evocations of a troubled place and of troubled human consciousness merge to create a portrait of suffering and of endurance that is uniquely compelling.

All of this gives us a Jun Do whose changing inner life is revealed subtly, through the ways in which he moves through a difficult world. This does not always happen during quiet moments: Johnson is adept at handling the back and forth between what is grave and what is bizarre in Jun Do’s experience. This is nowhere more true than in Part Two, which brings a startling change of horses, as Jun Do assumes the identity of the much-feared Commander Ga, Kim Jong-il’s greatest rival. Crazy though this sounds, it works; in a place this surreal, surprisingly many things do. Our hero also acquires Ga’s wife, Sun Moon, a favourite of Kim Jong-il and the only North Korean woman permitted to be an actress.

The “Dear Leader” himself is a frequent presence in the novel’s second part. There is a satisfying voyeurism to the glimpses of this maniac, living in his underground bunker, composing his artistic works and obsessing over the women he has stolen and the Americans who have insulted him. Strangely, though, in a novel that has elsewhere exhibited such a steady, unflinching gaze, there is no more real traction on the character of the tyrant than this. The bizarre must be present, of course, given that this is Kim Jong-il, but must it be quite so dominant?

A part of Johnson’s narrative from this point on is comprised entirely of a very effective satire – the voice of the daily broadcast – that would seem to do all the work necessary on that score. Another perspective shows us Jun Do’s progress as Ga, and the third is the voice of the unnamed interrogator, who brings us up close to the most horrific practices of the regime and throws light on the suffering of ordinary citizens – his elderly parents – who live in fear of the camps.

There is much, then, to savour as the story moves towards its climax: an unlikely love story, a blistering satire and a forceful tension arising from the pressure of three perspectives. But there is a sense, too, of the canvas being stretched, of elements being forced into play. For the plot to develop as Johnson wishes, certain traps must be laid, certain switches must be tripped, and there are moments when these props – chief among them the film Casablancaand a sort of magic camera connecting Jun Do to the CIA – stand out too incongruously amid a narrative otherwise so rich in confidence and subtlety. Indeed, the role and position of the United States seem not quite worked out: at times, Johnson bluntly swings his satire in its direction while, at other points, there is a jarring sense that the US exists in the narrative not just as an ideal to be dreamed of by the suffering North Koreans but as an ideal that the novel also believes in without asking many questions. There are moments when Jun Do’s journey of self-discovery seems too overtly signposted, to him and to us; illuminations are pushed out like mantras rather than being made manifest by Johnson’s nuanced prose.

Still, the novel is a wonder in spite of these strainings towards resolution; perhaps partly because of them. At its starkest, Johnson’s imagining of this place and of this hero recognises that there can be no easy wrapping up, no matter how central to the narrative the act of storytelling might be. This is a place, after all, in which stories are valuable only in so far as they are useful. But what Jun Do ultimately recognises is that his story can be useful to him as well as to those who demand or steal it; he can tell himself, at the end of all, how he would have felt if things (by which he means everything: North Korea, Kim Jong-il, everything) had been different.

To evoke at once what it feels like to be in such a place, and how it might have felt had things been very different there, are vast feats that Adam Johnson accomplishes with ingenuity and with towering empathy.


Belinda McKeon’s debut novel, Solace, published by Picador, was voted Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year for 2011