Monday, November 14, 2011

"The Orphan Master's Son," by Adam Johnson

If books can be passports to other places, then "The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel" gains you entree to the forbidden land of North Korea.

Of course, you have to be open to that sort of thing, and should in this case.

The author, Adam Johnson, as per his own account, bathed in North Korean culture, history and politics until they were expunged from his being in the form of characters. He traveled to the strange land of Kim Il Sung, smelled it, saw it, breathed it, and lived to come back and put it all down on paper.

And he was one of the lucky ones, if the North Korea in "The Orphan Master's Son," has even a shadow of authenticity to it.

Truly, no one gets out alive.

And so before us we have the story of Jun Do, a young fellow groomed in the hell-holes those in power set aside for orphans. Held in low regard by the regime, the kids are sent off to labor camps and mines and worked until death.

Some how Jun Do gets out, which is when the reader meets him. Hard-boiled by physical abuse, and wiser for the psychological type, he ends up on a detail kidnapping Japanese opera singers and wayward beachcombers for the entertainment and delight of the Dear Leader.

The pace of revelation is that of a classic bildungsroman, but the magic is in the details. Maybe it's because life in the People's Democratic Republic of North Korea is organized so distinctly from our own, or because Mr. Johnson is a skilled story-teller.

It doesn't really matter, a good read is a good read.

Jun Do is sent on an espionage mission to a gathering at a Texas senator's ranch. It doesn't go well and the leader of the operation, Dr. Song, is disappeared from the world for underperformance.

For his part, the young orphan-man disappears into the jail system, which the author will fill you in on, and resurfaces as a new character for the second half of the book.

Keeping it short, he kills a rival of the Dear Leader, a zany political chess player, who then lets him keep the murdered man's identity and his wife, the most famous actress in North Korea, Sun Moon.

A player in the court of a madman, Jun Do (Now Commander Ga) has much to relay about the way decisions are made in the Peoples Democratic Republic, before he is swallowed up into the void as well.

highwayscribery will leave a detailing of the myriad and piquant ways people are tortured to the author, but provide one passage for taste.

One of Johnson's narrators electrocutes people with an intervenor until the mind essentially breaks. "Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity," he explains, "the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins his crossing."

These new people are then sent off to work in rural collectives.

"We placed the professor's biography on the shelf, right next to the girl dancer from last week. She had us all weeping as she described how her little brother lost his eyes, and when the moment came to apply the autopilot to her, the pain made her limbs rise and sweep the air in rhythmic graceful gestures, as if she were telling her story one last time through movement."

Yikes. Under this umbrella of random terror, a love story, a political drama, a sly critique of the United States ("where nothing is free, not even a simple blood transfusion"), and harrowing portrait of a man requiring immediate removal from office and a good old fashion trial.

The liberal democratic way.

"The Orphan Master's Son," has many things to say, and it says them well and clearly. But it is strong coffee. A passport, yes, but no "Under the Tuscan Sun." You're traveling to the dark side.

Of the ten or so books this reviewer has cashiered through the Vine program -- very much a showcase for current writers -- this novel is the liveliest because of Johnson's willingness to go where few go, the scope of his exercise, and his adventurous approach to prose.