Totalitarian tales

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, Doubleday, £18.99, 443 pages

In The Orphan Master’s Son, American writer Adam Johnson skilfully conjures up the surreal peculiarities of North Korea, a totalitarian state that was, until recently, controlled by a Dear Leader so deluded that he could allow state-run media to boast of his having shot 11 holes-in-one in a round of golf – a world record.

The first section of this two-part novel, entitled “The Biography of Jun Do”, follows the misadventures of a boy raised at Long Tomorrows, an orphanage in the remote industrial city of Chongjin. At the age of 14, during the “Arduous March” – a reference to North Korea’s famine in the mid-1990s that resulted in around 2m deaths – Jun Do and a truck-load of orphans are sent to the army to avoid starvation. The countrywide diet of bark, grass and fingernails would only keep them alive for so long.

Jun Do is taught to endure alarming levels of pain and is trained in the art of “zero-light combat”. After eight years of fighting in tunnels beneath the demilitarised zone dividing North and South Korea, he is reassigned to work as a kidnapper for the state. Later he visits Texas on an important diplomatic mission to gather intelligence. After this trip ends in failure, he is sent home to a labour camp that works prisoners to death and then drains their blood for delivery to Pyongyang.

The plot of this first section is fast-paced and intriguing. It is also convincing in its portrayal of the psychological harm inflicted by a dictatorship that demands total denial of the self as a condition of survival. While Jun Do is working on a boat intercepting US radio transmissions, he acquiesces in the defection of a fellow sailor. The shipmates fear government retribution and devise a cover story claiming the defector has been eaten by sharks. To increase the story’s credibility, Jun Do allows his arm to be bitten by a shark in an “attempted rescue”. If this seems far-fetched, it is worth remembering that North Korean defectors and their accomplices face death from slow starvation or a firing squad if caught.

The second part of the novel – “The Confessions of Commander Ga” – gains two additional narrators. One is a nameless interrogator, who extracts stories from enemies of the state being held in captivity. The other is a loudspeaker that blasts out the officially sanctioned story of Jun Do’s life to all of North Korea. Together, the trio of narrators piece together the story of how Jun Do murders a prominent military commander at the labour camp, takes over his identity and falls in love with his wife, the famous actress Sun Moon.

This complex, multi-voiced narrative will remind some readers of David Mitchell’s similarly inventive tale, Cloud Atlas. Here, its purpose is to contrast the manipulative absurdities that issue forth from the nation’s rulers with the real experience of its citizens.

Despite the horrific nature of this story, Johnson injects enough levity to make the book extremely readable. Harrowing scenes of torture through “cranial administration of electricity” are juxtaposed with comical descriptions, such as Kim Jong-il hot-footing it down an airport runway in search of a missing person, “tummy bouncing inside his grey jumpsuit”. This mix of parody and real-life horror has already led to a fair amount of controversy. But in no way does this lessen the achievement of a novel so rich in plot, and so descriptive of North Korean life. It is magnificent.

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