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Portraying life inside a ‘hermit kingdom’

  • Published at 04:26 pm November 4th, 2018

Johnson has been successful to write with authority about the little-known North Korean life and culture

When Adam Johnson studied journalism at Arizona State University, one of his professors had to call him on a few occasions for the young undergrad student’s article was full of so many good quotes that the professor began to suspect they were “made-up.” Johnson, however, would never reveal if it was his professor’s “reprimand” that altered his passion from facts to fiction, but a few of his interviews suggest he had a penchant for an imaginary world since his childhood.

Years later, he would pursue his wish to know what it felt like to live in a remote and isolated country, and spend seven years to write a novel about North Korea, ignoring the warning of one of his well-meaning colleagues at Stanford who told him that he was risking his career for one book. Eventually, he would come up with a novel so unique that it would earn him a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013. 

Set in North Korea under the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong Il, “The Orphan Master’s Son” (Random House, 2012) is a book traversing many literary genres and themes. It is saturated with dark imagery, stories of romantic love and espionage on foreign land. It spotlights the deeply disturbing aspects of life in a “hermit kingdom” (a country walling itself off from the rest of the world), and its various means of distributing propaganda to its citizens. Dealing with a corrupt and almost surreal regime, Johnson ambitiously applies various narrative techniques: a loudspeaker’s account, which mimics state propaganda perpetuating across North Korea; perspective of a person writing the biography of a man named Jun Do; and Jun Do’s own account. 

The protagonist Jun Do – that is John Doe, the North Korean everyman – is brought up by his widowed father at an orphanage called Long Tomorrows where, as “the eldest boy,” he learns to exercise power over other orphans, deciding the amount of food they would get and “assigning bunks, renaming the list of new boys from the list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution.” His loyalty to the country and his survival skill are recognized by his superiors, and soon he finds himself engaged in many escapades. The essential everyman changes his identity every so often to become a tunnel assassin, a spy, a translator, a romantic lover, a traveller to Texas, an impostor, and ultimately a prison inmate. 

The book is occasionally interspersed with small two-page-long chapters, which are basically accounts given by various loudspeakers. Every household, every work place has to have a loudspeaker which transmits messages of “Dear Leader” from the capital. The loudspeakers always “bring good news” in kitchens, offices and factories. Farcical yet true to life, these are the propaganda versions of important state affairs. The loudspeakers continue to distribute stories about “naked aggression...from America”, “the boarding of innocent [North Korean] fishing vessels by foreign powers and about “the outlandish allegations of kidnapping levelled at [North Korea] by the Japanese”. They even inculcate obedience and conformity so the citizens “know that nothing happens without a purpose, that no task goes unnoticed”.

The novel may seem confusing at a few points when it darts from one perspective to another. Johnson seems to have done this intentionally, mimicking the way the dictatorial regime manipulates the fate of its citizens. He wants to send the same manipulative feeling to his readers, challenging them to realize how North Korean citizens find themselves in a totalitarian regime. So, when the protagonist Jun Do steps into the shoes of a national hero named Commander Ga, it often becomes hard to follow who is actually speaking –Jun Do or Commander Ga. However, it enriches the reading experience when one pays due attention to the narrative complexity of the novel. 

Experimenting ceaselessly with form and structure, “The Orphan Master’s Son” is Johnson’s brilliant feat of imagination. He has been successful to write with authority about the little-known North Korean life and culture. His fans, undoubtedly, will be flocking to his panel(s) at this year’s Dhaka Lit Fest to welcome him in this part of the world.

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