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They say that the truth is stranger than fiction, and few countries embody that saying better than the Peoples Democratic Republic of Korea. One of my many obsessions is North Korea. It’s one of the reasons that I wanted to serve in Shenyang. During my tour in China, I visited the border between China and North Korea at four different locations. While working in China, I had the opportunity to talk with Chinese tourists who visited North Korea, I talked with a few North Korean people, and in one very strange evening, I may or may not have sung a karaoke song in a restaurant with a young lady from North Korea.
I’ve read several books about that baffling country. A classic is Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea which describes life in the country during the famine of the late 1990s (“The Arduous March”). Many people consider that book as a definitive description of North Korea. However, another book, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, written several years later, depicts a North Korea that is largely recovered from the famine. The author of that book, Andrei Lankov, describes people living normal lives, using cell phones and the Internet. As a foreigner, Lankov’s movements were restricted to Pyongyang, which is largely protected from the worst deprivations in the country. The fact that he was probably prevented from seeing life in the country, where conditions can be terrible, in all likelihood colored his view of the country. However, Lankov was born in the USSR, and so he has personal experience with discerning truth from propaganda. His analysis of the country’s prospects for the future was food for thought.
The The Orphan Master’s Son is a work of fiction, the best novel I’ve ever read that takes place in North Korea. The author Adam Johnson is a professor of English at Stanford University. He isn’t a journalist, and although he has been to North Korea, he doesn’t appear to have dedicated his professional life to studying the country. This isn’t intended to be a slight or an insult to Johnson. Rather, I mention this in order to point out how remarkable it is that he is able so accurately to capture the experience of
living surviving in that bizarre country. His descriptions of daily life match up seamlessly with narratives from refugees. While so many fiction writers who place their stories in Asia don’t seem to “get” Asia, Johnson’s prose (unlike mine) is both readable and believable.
Johnson’s story is multi-layered. It’s possible to simply read through the book and follow the story. But there is more to the work than that. It was a delight to read to the end, then return to the first page and re-read the propaganda announcement that opens the novel. The subtext was clear to me upon the second reading, after knowing the back story. The effect reminded me of the phenomenon that Steven Johnson (no relation?) described in Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Our tastes as consumers of culture are becoming more and more sophisticated. The challenge to modern authors is to construct stories that are easily accessible, but that are more complex than they appear on the surface. This is true of video games, television shows, and novels. We want to be entertained, but it isn’t enough simply to be titillated. We want to engage with the entertainment. In “The Orphan Master’s Son,” Johnson offers the reader a fractal. We have the option to appreciate the story on its surface, or to explore deeper into the book. This is good writing.