Original Proposal

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Original Proposal

Post by johnkarls »

Insight Into Life in North Korea

Proposed by johnkarls - Tue Jan 31, 2012 2:44 pm - 117 views before being transplanted here

I propose that we read “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson (Random House 2012 – 443 pages – $15.60 + shipping from amazon.com).

Adam Johnson is Associate Professor of English with emphasis in creative writing at Stanford University. A Whiting Writers’ Award winner, his fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper's, Playboy, Paris Review, Tin House and Best American Short Stories. He is the author of Emporium, a short-story collection, and the novel Parasites Like Us, which won a California Book Award. His novel The Orphan Master's Son has just been published by Random House. His books have been translated into French, Dutch, Japanese, Catalan, German, Spanish, Italian, Hebrew, Polish, Portuguese and Serbian. Johnson is a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow.

As explained in the 1/13/2012 NY Times Book Review and the transcript of last evening’s MacNeil-Lehrer (aka PBS News Hour) interview of Prof. Johnson -- both of which are reproduced below -- there is virtually no publicly-available information about what life is like inside North Korea.

In the best tradition of, e.g., James Michener in whose novels one could always rely for the factual accuracy of all of the details in which the story was set, Prof. Adams describes life in North Korea based on his extensive interviews of North Koreans -- both those who have not defected and those who have.

Incidentally, Yours Truly had to smile when Prof. Johnson mentioned in the MacNeil-Lehrer interview that to make his novel interesting vis-à-vis his protagonist’s challenge to authority, he decided to base the challenge on a love interest!!! Why the smile??? Because it sounded like the protagonist in George Orwell’s novel "1984", Winston Smith, had been re-incarnated!!! After all, Winston Smith's challenge to Big Brother's Regime was also made for the sake of a love interest!!!

But let’s forgive Prof. Johnson’s resort to a love interest because a love interest is de rigueur for Hollywood movies so he may not have borrowed the idea from Orwell (though life in North Korea, from the MacNeil-Lehrer interview, does sound thoroughly Orwellian).

Transcript – MacNeil-Lehrer (aka PBS News Hour) – 1/30/2012

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: A novelist imagines life inside one of the world's most isolated and potentially dangerous countries.

The death last month of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il the naming of his son as successor briefly opened a small window on that secretive and repressive nation, but so much remains unknown and unseen.

One way in, a new work of fiction receiving much acclaim titled "The Orphan Master's Son." Its author is Adam Johnson, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University.

Welcome to you.

ADAM JOHNSON, "The Orphan Master's Son": Thanks for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: I think we should start at the obvious question, which is, why a novel set in North Korea? What attracted you?

ADAM JOHNSON: Well, I became fascinated just as a general reader. I read the "Aquariums of Pyongyang" by Chol-hwan Kang. The stories of people who had made it out of that country, even made it out of gulags, the Kwan-li-so system there, were so captivating to me. It seemed, just as a writer, that this was perhaps the most difficult place on Earth to be fully human, a place where spontaneity is almost impossible, where confessing your heart and your wants and desires run counter to the state and could get you in trouble, and because I found very few works from North Korean writers themselves that they weren't allowed to tell their own stories, that I thought this was something that literacy fiction could do, could fill in this void.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, then, of course, you had to learn what life is like. And some of it is from those stories. But you also made a trip there.

ADAM JOHNSON: I did travel to the DPRK in 2007. It was very difficult to get there, but I did. And, you know, I was shown everything they wanted me to see. And I was minded very closely. But I think there are ways to see through the propaganda.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see?

ADAM JOHNSON: Well, I saw a country that was hungry for food, hungry for power, hungry for money certainly. They tried to sell me things at every turn that were all manufactured in China. They didn't know that we had things in the rest of the world that were of much higher quality. I saw a family in a park stealing chestnuts from a public tree, which is quite a transgression there and could get them in great trouble. And I saw how furtively the children kind of ran to the branches as the parents gathered them on the ground.

JEFFREY BROWN: These are the kinds of details that make it into the book.

ADAM JOHNSON: Well, they're the kinds of things that you could never know unless you want there and saw them for themselves. I saw a group of people in the back of a dump truck being transported to the countryside to volunteer to help with the harvest. And I asked my minder, you know, who they were. And she said they were just going there to help out. And she said everyone must volunteer here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, if you set aside the unusual setting, which is hard to do, but it's a long kind of twisting tale of one character . . .


JEFFREY BROWN: . . . part thriller, part romance. This character Jun Do, one episode after another, with the regime and then trying to survive the regime. Tell us about him and how you sort of found him as the way into the story.

ADAM JOHNSON: Right. Well, part of it has to do with my initial interest in narrative. In America, the stories we tell ourselves and we tell each other in fiction have to do with individualism. Every person here is the center of his or her own story. And our job as people and as characters is to find our own motivations and desires, to overcome conflicts and obstacles toward defining ourselves so that we grow and change. But, in North Korea, it's just the opposite. There's one story. It's written by the Kim regime. And 23 million people are conscripted to be secondary characters. There, as a youth, your aptitude towards certain jobs is measured, and the rest of your life is dictated, whether you'll be a fisherman or a farmer or an opera singer. And, in that world, to have your own desires and motivations, to reveal yourself is counter to your role and can get you in serious trouble. And so you have to censor yourself. And I took a character who starts as a model North Korean citizen, who does everything he's told, no matter how grim or how dark it is. But only when he realizes he's truly disposable does he move to be a character that we would know, who takes risks for what he wants, in this case love.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, this layering of stories, in a sense, is part of the theme here, I think. There's a line where one character says, where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro.

ADAM JOHNSON: That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the stories one tells is -- I suppose, for a novelist, this is an interesting way of thinking about life, too.

ADAM JOHNSON: It's true. In America, you can reinvent yourself at any turn. And, you know, if things aren't going well for you in life, everyone says, change, become someone different. There, it's the of opposite. The person can never change. It's the national narrative that matters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Were you surprised then with -- I know this took you a long time to do, right, a number of years?


JEFFREY BROWN: Did you -- were you surprised by where it went, where it took you? Or did you have this in mind from the beginning?

ADAM JOHNSON: Well, I tried to keep, you know, like Kim Jong Il, for instance, out of the book, because he's so absurd and we have such a caricature notion of him in the West. But as the book progressed, and I really understood that this was the sole scriptwriter of an entire nation, that he alone was responsible, through totalitarianism, for the lives of every single person and their fates, I had to make him a character in the book. And so we get a look at the great scriptwriter himself. But, as a writer, I had to make him complex, find his weaknesses and strengths, make him round and believable.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, the timing of his death, you could not have known. But what did you -- what was going on in your head when you were watching last month when he died, and all this talk about the successor and who that might be and this little window that I mentioned into the society?

ADAM JOHNSON: Well, he still might come back to life.

ADAM JOHNSON: That's the one place in the world where that could happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think so?


JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, it's a strange enough society and culture.

ADAM JOHNSON: It's a strange enough place that that could happen. It's a land of mysteries. It's the most mysterious place in the world, I believe. And even as to his death, we don't have his autopsy, we don't have his cause of death. We don't know how he died. Was he killed by a bodyguard? We don't know anything about it. And so it's these mysteries that I wanted to fulfill. It was the people I saw all over Pyongyang that I wanted to individuate and to bring to life. And I had to use imagination to do it, because they're not allowed to tell their own stories.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is "The Orphan Master's Son." Adam Johnson, thanks so much.

ADAM JOHNSON: My pleasure.

NY Times Book Review – 1/13/2012

Kim Jong-il’s Romantic Rival
By CHRISTOPHER R. BEHA – Editor of Harper’s Magazine

The title of Adam Johnson’s second novel is a bit misleading. Raised in the Long Tomorrows orphanage in Chongjin, North Korea, his protagonist believes himself to be the son of the Orphan Master rather than some kid dropped off by his desperate parents. But the primary evidence for this belief — “the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment” — invites other interpretations. Like the rest of the boys, he is given a name from the list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution that will mark him as an orphan for the rest of his life. Pak Jun Do (the given name Jun Do is a homonym of “John Doe”) is appropriate for a character with such a shifting identity, someone who will become both the perpetrator and the victim of countless crimes.

Conscripted into the army after a famine devastates the orphanage, Jun Do patrols the dark tunnels beneath the demilitarized zone before being reassigned to a unit that kidnaps Japanese citizens in night raids. For reasons that are never entirely explained, he is taught English, which leads to a job translating foreign radio transmissions and then to a diplomatic mission to Texas, where he makes friends with a senator’s wife. When that trip ends in disaster, he is sent to a labor camp, where he comes face to face with the diabolical Commander Ga, a national hero and Kim Jong-il’s rival for the affections of an actress called Sun Moon. Jun Do’s training in hand-to-hand tunnel combat helps him defeat Ga, whereupon he takes his place in Pyongyang as Sun Moon’s husband and the father of her children.

If all this sounds convoluted, I should note that I’ve described only the first half of “The Orphan Master’s Son,” which more or less serves as a prologue to the book’s real story: Jun Do’s efforts to get Sun Moon and the children out of the country. Yet Johnson’s novel, far from being too labyrinthine, is an ingeniously plotted adventure that feels much shorter than its roughly 450 pages and offers the reader a tremendous amount of fun.

This isn’t entirely a compliment. Should “fun” really be the first word to describe a novel about one of the worst places on earth? Questions of the moral responsibility attendant on certain artistic subjects can be vexing and frankly tiresome, resurrected with the appearance of every summer blockbuster about the Holocaust or some other historical horror. They would seem to be only more vexing in the case of North Korea, where the horror is still going on and so little is revealed to the outside world, even as the country passes from the “Dear Leader” to his untested son. But this matter of responsibility is largely beside the point in the case of Johnson’s novel, since he clearly intends to do his material justice. The better question is why such a talented writer has failed to make good on that intention.

In his story collection, “Emporium,” and a previous novel, “Parasites Like Us,” Johnson specialized in the sort of darkly absurdist satire familiar to readers of George Saunders and Donald Antrim. “Teen Sniper,” a typical story from “Emporium,” depicts a young sharpshooter who works for the city of Oakland, Calif., assassinating dissatisfied tech company employees. In “Parasites Like Us,” an anthropologist in South Dakota disturbs an ancient burial ground, bringing about the near extinction of human life while offering disquisitions on the rapaciousness of contemporary culture.

Johnson has said that his latest book began in a similarly farcical spirit, as a short story called “The Best North Korean Short Story of 2005,” inspired by the “loonier” elements of Kim Jong-il’s regime. But after some research, which included a trip to Pyongyang, Johnson realized that the “gravity” of his subject matter instilled “a sense of duty.” Having learned this, I found it dispiriting to arrive at a brutal interrogation scene in “The Orphan Master’s Son” and recognize the similarities here to the methods used by the police in the dystopian Oakland of “Teen Sniper.” More dispiriting still was seeing Kim Jong-il appear not just as a loony but as a kind of merry prankster. Even the initial conceit of the Best North Korean Short Story survives in the form of interstitial chapters in which the “official” version of Commander Ga and Sun Moon’s story is projected to all citizens by way of loudspeakers. Taken on their own, these interludes are fine exercises in dark wit, but in the context of a novel that seeks to portray a country’s suffering, they’re unconvincing. Though they occupy only a few pages, they mar the book’s overall effect.

Ultimately, the one rule of art is that you’re permitted anything you can get away with. I raise the question of responsibility with respect to “The Orphan Master’s Son” because the book itself seems to raise it, and because Johnson’s prodigious talent and inventiveness aren’t enough to silence it. Johnson’s very sense of duty may have been what led him astray. In his days of tunnel patrol, Jun Do observes that the key to such work is to “never use your imagination. The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.” Johnson might have deployed more imagination, or less. In any event, he has written an exceedingly readable book that never quite shows us the real darkness — or the darkness inside his head.

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