By Adam Johnson – A prodigious creative imagination put together this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Few Americans have visited North Korea in recent decades; if they have, they’ve seen little other than what their minders are authorized to show them, and they’ve talked with no one outside their official itinerary. We cannot “see for ourselves” what living in such a massively regulated, brutal nation is like. In such a circumstance, it’s daunting to create a fully developed world, and it would be easy to create fictional characters who are two-dimensional, stereotypic. But Johnson has created such a world and peopled his book with true individuals who act believably, even when what they must do is unbelievably horrifying.
While the reader acquires a bone-chilling sense of North Korean life and how survival requires quick wits and artful deception, in no way does this novel feel like a political tract. What the reader comes to understand are the daily accommodations of action and speech and even thought that the system under Kim Jong Un, the Dear Leader, requires.
The first third of the book is about Jun Do (John Doe), the orphan master’s son who declares he is not an orphan. At various points, Jun Do has chances to escape, to defect to South Korea, to abandon ship in Japan, to hide out in the United States, but he doesn’t take them, in part because of the danger such an action would create for his companions and because (speaking of South Korea) “he was scared that if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who’d gone blind from hunger? That would have been for nothing. Sending another boy instead of himself to clean vats at the paint factory? For nothing.”
Yet the book is rich in both love and humor. Seeing Jun Do cope with the disconnect between reality and the government’s constant diet of lies can be simultaneously amusing and heart-breaking.
In the second part of the book, the narration alternates among several sources, and includes this story told by a young interrogator of political prisoners about the talk every father has with his son, “in which he brings the child to understand that there are ways we must act, things we must say, but inside, we are still us, we are family”:
I was eight when my father had this talk with me . . . [After denouncing the boy in a terrifying way] . . [m]y father said, “See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If . . . someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it’s not really you. That’s inside. Inside is where the son and the father will always be holding hands.”
Some chapters of this section are told via the official and ubiquitous government loudspeakers, which blare constantly in homes, factories, and public places. The extent to which the population is taken in by these jingoistic broadcasts is unclear, since cracks in the façade of total loyalty to the Dear Leader are dangerous.
Regarding the relentless suffering, one character says, “When the Dear Leader wanted you to lose more, he gave you more to lose.” He gave Jun Do love in the person of actress Sun Moon, and contrary to the Dear Leader’s expectation, love saved them both.
Despite all the paranoia, torture, starvation, slave labor camps, and dark and dripping prison cells, incredibly, I found this beautifully written novel uplifting; it engenders the feeling that the North Koreans will ultimately free themselves from their repressive government because the burden of believing in it will become too great.