Johnson’s book is an audacious act of imagination: an intimate narrative about one of the most closed nations on Earth, a place so shuttered that it concealed the Dear Leader’s death for more than 24 hours. Yet the setting is precisely rendered. The reader feels as if he is in Chongjin, where starving people ate the bark off trees; or atop Mount Taesong with the elite of Pyongyang, whose existence is a mix of sadism and whimsy; or with the masses who are bombarded day and night with the propaganda of North Korea’s alternate reality.
In Johnson’s North Korea, people are hideously regimented and terrorized, but they do not lose the qualities that make them compelling human beings. In this way, the novel recalls George Orwell’s “1984,” in which the humanity of ordinary people survives despite the best efforts of the torturers and liars who rule their lives. But it’s a funnier and warmer book than that — in the absurd chorus of the loudspeakers that broadcast the Dear Leader’s lies, and in the nobility of individual North Koreans who remain decent and loving even as they suffer. Imagine Charles Dickens paying a visit to Pyongyang, and you see the canvas on which Johnson is painting here.
Johnson’s triumph is the character of Pak Jun Do, the young hero of this Korean version of the “novel of education.” Jun Do is raised in a work camp for orphans after his beautiful mother is kidnapped and taken to Pyongyang. When the regime recognizes his ferocious toughness, he is recruited as a tunnel fighter who can attack in zero light. That leads to a stint as a seagoing kidnapper who plucks Japanese off dark beaches. Then, because of his talent for languages, he becomes a monitor of American radio transmissions at sea.
Jun Do’s rise eventually takes him, improbably, on a secret mission to Texas, where failure leads to his seeming ruin. When he returns home, he is sent to a mine that works prisoners to death and then drains their blood for shipment to Pyongyang. As in any bildungsroman, the hero is driven onward by a quest — in Jun Do’s case, for his lost mother and the elite world in which she has come to reside. To achieve his goal, he must take on the identity of another man and inhabit his uniform and authority, even his house atop Mount Taesong. It’s far-fetched, you might think, but Johnson’s vivid writing and comic sense make these plot details work. You don’t want to put the book down at night; you want to see where the ingenious Jun Do will go next.
But this is not a perfect novel. The subplot in Texas was, for me, a detour that didn’t pay off. It foreshadowed a spy story that never entirely materialized. And Johnson’s Pyongyang seemed much more real than his Abilene.
Some readers will be challenged, too, by the switch in voices — from an omniscient narrator who tells the core story to the loudspeakers that bark out a propaganda version for “Citizens,” to an interrogator-torturer who makes an awkward comic figure. This complex, multi-voiced narrative testifies to Johnson’s standing as a professor of creative writing at Stanford. And his mosaic, puzzle-solving way of storytelling will remind some of David Mitchell, author of the similarly inventive “Cloud Atlas.”
I haven’t liked a new novel this much in years, and I want to share the simple pleasure of reading the book. But I also think it’s an instructive lesson in how to paint a fictional world against a background of fact: The secret is research. Johnson spent six years working on “The Orphan Master’s Son,” reading everything he could about North Korea, ingesting the oral histories of defectors and eventually visiting the country. He had to investigate the actual place with enough care that he could begin to invent his own version. It’s this process of re-imagination that makes the fictional locale so real and gives the novel an impact you could never achieve with a thousand newspaper stories.
Kim Jong Il is such a madly compelling figure in these pages that when his death was announced last month, I initially worried that it might limit the audience for this book. But I hope for just the opposite. Johnson has painted in indelible colors the nightmare of Kim’s North Korea. When English readers want to understand what it was about — how people lived and died inside a cult of personality that committed unspeakable crimes against its citizens — I hope they will turn to this carefully documented story. The happy surprise is that they will find it such a page turner.
Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist and the author of eight novels, most recently “Bloodmoney.”