Review: Unlikely Hero in The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
3 Jan. 2018
|Review: Unlikely Hero in The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson|
“The way you dig in a boot for old sticky toes is the way you spring a trapdoor in a DMZ tunnel or pull a stranger off a beach in Japan: you just take that breath and go.”
With North Korea much on my mind and frighteningly much in the news, I turned to The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson to provide some literary clarity. I knew almost nothing about this tiny, militant half-a-peninsula and educating oneself on the truth of a nation by reaching for fiction is arguably not the best solution. But after reading Mr. Johnson’s novel - astounded Korea experts have deemed it strong enough to be confused with a memoir - the curtains guarding North Korean daily life have thinned, allowing a glimmer of what could very well be truth laced through a cracking good tale of spies, love, adventure, and national insanity. It’s a believable fiction set in an unverifiable locale, a country Mr. Johnson has said is too often dismissed as no more than a grab-bag of "buffoonery, madness or evil."
I flinched a bit as I began, expecting horror, deprivation, hunger, despair…and they were there in spades. In Johnson’s dark Wonderland of thought-control and low life expectancies, where the government will sooner harvest blood from a sick citizen than heal them, the North Koreans play out their hand. The book is a shocker, full of jaw-dropping, head-shaking descriptions of the bleakest existence. To a friend, I likened it to a post-apocalyptic fiction that is actually, presently, being endured. Knowledge of other ways to live life is unknown and illegal to discover. Only those balancing within the precarious upper echelons know even the basic tenets of Western culture. Our hero must be briefed during a diplomatic trip to Texas and the quick practical primer on Americans was cuttingly accurate and hilarious.
The protagonist Pak Jun Do (a Korean “John Doe”) has the heart and intelligence that make an ally of any reader. We root for him despite how his talents are employed by Pyongyang, anchoring ourselves to the sanity and humor of his internal narrative. He’s our hero. And his attempts to attain the impossible sweep us up into a page-turner of a plot. But it’s a surface plot; the mass mental torture and terrorization of a country is the unforgettable backdrop and the true reason to read this book. Not for shock value, but to bear witness. Mr. Johnson spins a fictitious story, but he spices it with accounts of defectors and if even half of what he writes is true, we should at the very very least simply know.
But Adam Johnson’s brilliance is that he chooses a love story as his underlying theme. And he proves that for all the cruelty rampant in North Korea, resiliency and love still exist. In one small vignette, I found distilled the essence of what daily life in North Korea most likely encompasses and I held onto it as a touchstone of humanity:
A loving father walking through a park with his son teaches him the narrow path required by survival, loudly denouncing him to a group of uninterested seniors.
“See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If your mother ever must say something like that to me, in order to protect the two of you, know that inside, she and I are holding hands. And if someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it’s not really you. That’s inside. Inside is where son and father will always be holding hands.”
Read this book to discover a dangerous, unknown world. Read this book for its clever flipping of the spy genre. Read this book to protest the atrocities of totalitarianism. Read this book for the unexpected humor of an anthropomorphized loudspeaker. Read this book, take a big, deep breath of freedom, and then go exercise and celebrate those rights that make our country luckier than most.
Ghillian Porter-Smith reviews an Unlikely Hero in The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
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