The Orphanmaster's Son by Adam Johnson is a book I wanted to like, lots of people I respect do, and I am always willing to champion a book that's against totalitarian repression and meglomaniacal dictators. So what's the problem? It's unrelenting in its narrative of atrocities so viscerally frightening in this "no exit" world that they would have been the envy of Kafka's Castle or Dostoyevsky's The Lower Depths or Solzenetsyn's Gulag or any concentration camp history....and that's my problem. I don't know if Mr.Johnson's N.Korea is meant to be mythic or real or a combination of both.
Why does this matter? If it's historical truth or fiction based on it, then I accept the necessity to shock so we can be outraged and perhaps contribute to some change or resolve it won't happen again. If he's created this world in order to indict N.Korea, that would be an endeavor made more believable by a novel with more than one note--despair/hopelessness--only relieved at the end by the possibility of escape but not for the hero. I found myself almost feeling sorry for a country I know little about, so wholly condemned as vicious, tyrannical, and completely soul destroying for all its citizens high or low.
A pity because it is so well written and yet you find yourself almost afraid to care for the protagonists, because people are so casually tortured and killed--completely eviscerated as individuals with identity in The Orphanmaster's Son. The book tells two stories that overlap. one of General Ga, who is not really the General, and his biographer, who actually is a police torturer. It begins with an orphan, who's not really an orphan since his father is the orphanmaster, the man who captures them from the streets and has them sent to various work farms, uranium mines, toil that leads to no life expectancy for these ill fed, ill treated, flotsam of the bottom rung of N.Korean society. They are exploited even for their blood if they sicken, far worse than Dickens' England. Yet the Orphan master's son manages to survive and keep some identity since he had had a father and a mother who was a "singer."
One day he is attacked by the strongest most evil man in N.Korea, General Ga, and lives to not just escape the uranium mines but to become the man he killed, assuming his high place in society and his wife, the beautiful actress Sun Moon, who is the soul of the "Dear Leader's" Korea. His learning about love with Sun Moon and her two children, inspires a denouement worthy of Casablanca--the movie that inspires the Imposter Ga to a great act of liberation. The police interrogator cannot bear the one noble man he's encountered, who experienced love, to be destroyed and so he tells his story so that his identity will be preserved and, at the end, you protest his stultifying solution, though it was inevitable. In this N.Korea, the "Dear Leader" is a combination of Hitler and Big Brother. In this unimaginable world everyone and everything is part of him and owes whatever existence they have to complete subjugation. It is a nightmare there is no waking from, until the Americans land to rescue their female rower. A path is briefly open. I don't know I would recommend this novel, which I think is a poetic allegory to the reality that is North Korea. I would rather read something by a North Korean? I may be having an authenticity problem.