So often award-winning books fail to deliver the wow factor. So it was with some trepidation that I chose the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson for our “mainly men” book club. Just for the record, these boys are hard to please.
I chose the book primarily because of its setting: the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, under the reign of Kim Jong-il. Not many books are written about or set in this country, and it is a place and culture that the “outside” world knows little about. Although I once travelled to South Korea from Japan by boat, the North has always been an unknown entity.
It’s the incredible story of orphan Jun Do’s (the equivalent of John Doe) life and times in a diverse number of roles and in different parts of the country (and at times, world). From the orphanage he moves on to become a tunnel fighter under the DMZ; an agent who kidnaps Japanese citizens from that neighbouring shore; a radio operator on a “spy” fishing ship secretly tapping into the dreams of a naked American female rower (yes, bizarre but believable); a prisoner; a uranium miner; the copy-cat husband of the country’s esteemed opera star; an ambassador for his country on a trip to Texas; a national hero; and finally, a right-hand man to the country’s beloved leader.
Each stage of Do’s life is like a small story inside a story as Johnson transports us to North Korea and for a short time we feel so close to the action that we can almost smell and taste what is coming off the page. A lot of this has to do with the research Johnson carried out and his brilliant writing. His research came from speaking to those Koreans who had crossed the line, and from travelling there himself, under close guard. It is hard to gauge what could possibly be truth and what is fiction? Could life really be that controlled and worth so little in this day and age? Sometime it all seems so exaggerated but in the weeks after reading this novel, parts of it played out in the international media.
According to the South Korean and Chinese press, Kim Jong-un’s ex-girlfriend was among a dozen well-known North Korean performers who were executed by firing squad for violating pornographic laws:
The reports in South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper indicate that Hyon, a singer with the Unhasu Orchestra, was among those arrested on August 17 for violating domestic laws on pornography.
All 12 were machine-gunned three days later, with other members of North Korea’s most famous pop groups and their immediate families forced to watch. The onlookers were then sent to prison camps, victims of the regime’s assumption of guilt by association, the reports stated.
“They were executed with machine guns while the key members of the Unhasu Orchestra, Wangjaesan Light Band and Moranbong Band as well as the families of the victims looked on,” said a Chinese source reported in the newspaper.
While back in Australia, former High Court judge Michael Kirby says he has been moved to tears by some of the testimony he has heard about alleged human rights abuse in North Korea. He also said he has heard distressing allegations of North Korean agents abducting people, including children, from Japan.
“Similarly the abduction of soldiers during the Korean war, 60 years ago and the still-waiting relatives who only ask that they be informed what happened to their loved ones.”
And as I write this review, news has come in from Amnesty International that the inmate population at one of North Korea’s most notorious camps is growing, as are the prison numbers in general across the country.
“For Amnesty International, which has been investigating human rights violations for the last 50 years, we find North Korea to be in a category of its own,” said Amnesty’s East-Asia researcher, Rajiv Narayan.
Has Johnson got it spot on or is this work a fiction, just that?
My rating: ★★★★