Adam Johnson’s five North Korean minders didn’t know what to make of him. They took him to the national museum in Pyongyang to show him room after room of paintings whose only subject matter was the glorification of Korea’s ruling family, the Kims. But Johnson wanted to know where the fire stations were.

Later an assistant minder tried to tell Johnson about the Dear Leader’s (Kim Jong Il) thoughts on terrorism. But Johnson wanted to know why he didn’t see any mailboxes. How did people get their mail? Why was there no one in a wheelchair in the capital? Weren’t there any handicapped people in North Korea?

“It’s so surreal to see the sameness of everyone. I would walk through these crowds of people and they wouldn’t dare to look at me.”

“I asked all these verisimilitude questions that I don’t think anyone had ever asked them before,” Johnson says, recounting his strange, darkly funny experiences during a five-day visit to North Korea in August 2007. 

Johnson had gone to North Korea—no easy task for an American—about halfway through his seven-year effort to complete his spellbinding new novel The Orphan Master’s Son. Part thriller, part love story, part tale of daring impersonation, part wrenching examination of repression and its toll on human nature, the novel is set in North Korea (with a side trip to Texas).

“Most of the nonfiction about North Korea I found was about nuclear policy, economic theory or military history instead of human issues,” says Johnson, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, the writer Stephanie Harrell, and their children, ages 9, 7 and 5, and teaches in the creative writing program at Stanford University. “The more I looked to find what human life might be like there, the more elusive it became and the more I felt this was important to know. I can’t say I’m a big do-gooder. I wrote the book as an imaginative work for my own reasons. But I did feel I needed to go see the place to understand it.”

But, as Johnson learned, it is illegal for an unauthorized North Korean to talk to a foreigner, a crime that would likely land the perpetrator in Korea’s gulag. “You’d walk down the street in throngs of thousands and thousands of people. I’m six foot four and a half and 280 pounds. I’m a big guy. And these people weigh like 130 pounds. There are four shoe styles for men in North Korea; there’s one shade of lipstick for women; it’s so surreal to see the sameness of everyone. I would walk through these crowds of people and they wouldn’t dare to look at me. It was a risk. So it was really clear that not a single spontaneous thing could happen there. It was just too dangerous to look at the strangest human you’d ever seen.”

Johnson manages to embed this sense of fear within the personal relationships of many of his characters. “The idea of what it would be like for a character to live under that fascinated me,” Johnson says. “I am a person who loves narrative, who teaches narrative theory. In our stories in the West we believe every character is the center of his or her own story. We believe every human is unique and valuable, has yearnings and desires. 

“But in North Korea there is a national script, conveyed through propaganda. There is one notion about who the people are and what the national goals are, and you as a citizen are conscripted to be a part of this national narrative. . .  You have to relinquish your own personal desires.”

The Orphan Master’s Son unfolds in two parts. In the first, we -follow the travails of Pak Jun Do, who is born among orphans, the country’s most expendable creatures. As Johnson says, “Jun Do hews to the national script,” first assigned to live in the ever-dark incursion tunnels dug beneath the border with South Korea, then tapped for kidnapping expeditions to Japan, then to serve as an English translator at a listening post aboard a vessel disguised as a fishing boat, where he “begins to become his own character,” and in so doing runs afoul of the authorities and ends up in a Korean gulag working in the mines.   

In part two, set a year after Jun Do disappears into the mines, we take up the story of Commander Ga, head of the nation’s mining operations and erstwhile friend of leader Kim Jong Il. One of Johnson’s most audacious acts of storytelling is to make the Dear Leader a central character in the book. “I felt I had to get the scriptwriter. There was a character who was making the entire reality of the world for these people, and I had to go take a look at him.” 

A number of the events described in the novel are clearly inspired by true-life incidents. And Johnson jokes that he actually had to leave out some of the wackier actions of Kim Jong Il because they would have interfered with his novel’s essential believability. But the dazzling virtuosity of Johnson’s storytelling makes The Orphan Master’s Son a work of far greater depth and range than a fictionalized panorama of life under the most repressive regime on Earth. 

Part two, for example, is told in an astonishing medley of voices and tonalities, ranging from a standard third-person point of view, to the chilling but also creepily comic voice of Propaganda, to a first-person account from a state interrogator, all while the narrative swirls backward and forward in time. There are rapturous descriptions of the sea at night. There is the often-funny inverted dialogue of interrogators and their prey. And there are moving passages about the human need for intimacy, which in this society can be a revolutionary act.

Johnson, the author of the short story collection Emporium and one previous novel, Parasites Like Us, says dealing with this challenging subject forced him to grow as a writer. “My tradition is formal realism, but in North Korea what is real is in question. So I couldn’t try to cram this story into ways I was familiar with. Things that I had taken for granted about how characters work, stories unfold, and how plot, momentum, pacing, tension and withholding work had to be different here. I was really open to taking risks, trying new things.” 

He adds, “I didn’t set out to write a big North Korea book. I was very curious about this place where all the rules of storytelling seemed different. It made me write a very different book than I have written before. And in the end I feel like I got a pretty good book out of it.”

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