Last week I was in North Korea. well, not actually, physically in North Korea, but it occupied my mind. I was reading The Orphan Master’s Son, which is set there.
Simultaneously, the real North Korea was providing the news networks on the screens in my gym with daily fodder – rocket launches, 100th birthdays, formation marching and the like.
The line between life and art, reality and fiction seemed blurred. In the novel, the protagonist Jun do, a North Korean “John Doe” everyman, stumbles through a terrifyingly repressive state, its bureaucracy and violence.
He leaves the orphanage to train “zero-light” combat, to fight in the dark and to endure unimaginable levels of pain. His skills are put to use with a kidnap squad, snatching Japanese off beaches.
Through a strange set of circumstances – and because he understands English – he is sent on a mission to Texas, to some strange encounters with representatives of the evil empire, America. back in Pyongyang, Jun do takes on another’s persona, and falls in love with Sun Moon, North Korea’s most famous actress.
The picture author Adam Johnson paints of North Korea is a mixture of historical accuracy and bizarre invention. It’s a grotesque picture: No one can be trusted. love is dangerous – it is one more thing to lose, and it gives leverage to your enemies. Violence is extreme; empathy nonexistent. Individuals are powerless; the state absurdly powerful.
“Where we are from,” says one character, “stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. and secretly, he’d be wise to start practising the piano. for us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”
The unusual mix of parody, fact and noir comedy gives the work a rather manic quality that pulls you in and drags you along, no matter how implausible it all seems at times and how distasteful it feels to be having the occasional chuckle at one of the most repressive countries on Earth.
But for the most part, somehow this daring and rather bizarre novel works. it paints a picture of a man imprisoned in a system that strips citizens of all that makes them human – hope, history, safety. and yet, in the face of the torturers and sadists, the bureaucracy and starvation, and despite the horrors he himself has committed in the name of the state, Jun do retains his core humanity. Finally, inspired, peculiarly, by the movie Casablanca, he commits an act of selflessness and love.
Turning from the novel to the real world, my head still filled with Jun do, I did wonder how many of the engineers, fitters and turners, scientists and tea ladies went off to the country’s prisons as a result of the failed rocket launch.
Next, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, we were treated to impressive displays of coordinated marching and massed singing of a scale and precision you would not be able to achieve in your favourite democracy, that’s for sure. As thousands of fireworks exploded, I remembered the soup made of wild flowers and bark that the novel’s starving characters ate in desperation, and wondered whether perhaps the money might have been better used on steak. the baby-faced Kim Jong un, who watched over them, became one with the novel’s “Dear Leader” and the fictional and real worlds collided.
Kate Sidley is the Sunday Times Books Columnist