Friday, October 18, 2013

“The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson – Kidnapping One’s Humanity

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson - book cover
North Korea is certainly known around the world as a brutal, cruel and unforgiving place where atrocities are virtually committed on a daily basis, and where the people live under the iron rule of whomever their leader happens to be. However, it seems that very few works in literature explore that place on Earth, which is why The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson is a welcome breath of fresh air in the world of books. It tells the story of a young boy, Pak Jun Do, whose mother was “stolen” to Pyongyang and whose father runs a work camp for orphans.

Early on in his life, Jun Do proves himself to be a very loyal servant of what he sees as the greatest nation on Earth, and slowly he rises through their ranks until he becomes a professional kidnapper. At that point, his duty, morals, beliefs, values and instincts all start clashing one against the other, until he can no longer stand any of it and does what he believes he must: he becomes the rival of Kim Jong Il, hoping to save the woman he loves and perhaps salvage what is left of his great country.

In the spirit of numerous novels that touched on similar subjects before this one, The Orphan Master’s Son is a display of human nature both at its best and its very worst. Johnson portrays North Korea much like those who have seen it first-hand claim it to be: a place desolated with hunger, corruption, normalized cruelty, but one where the human spirit hasn’t been laid to rest yet, where the people try to keep each other afloat with tremendous acts of love and kindness. We basically get to see it all as Jun Do’s mentality shifts from one extreme to the next, also giving us some valuable insight into the mentality of those living in North Korea, those who voluntarily assume violent and cruel roles in society. We get to learn why such a state of affairs persists in that country, and why its people are powerless to put an end to it.

Going beyond the social commentary in this book, the story itself and the characters in it are all worthy of the award the book received. The cast is filled with varied characters, each one seemingly representing a certain part of the population through their thoughts and emotions (at least that was my impression). The story is pretty heart-wrenching, as we are treated to a lot of death, destruction and misery before things finally start to get better, at least to some extent.

All in all, The Orphan Master’s Son is a majestic work of writing which touches upon a subject that has only recently begun to pick up in attention. It delivers on all fronts, providing a memorable story and eye-opening information; it is certainly a book worth reading by anyone even remotely interested in today’s North Korea.

Adam Johnson (July 12, 1967)

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is an American novelist and short story writer who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2013 for The Orphan’s Master Son, in addition to which he was awarded numerous other prizes. He wrote two other books to this day, Emporium, a collection of stories, and Parasites Like Us.

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