Book Talk: The fall and rise of a North Korean Everyman

Thu Jan 26, 2012 10:24am EST
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Pak Jun Do is a dutiful North Korean. Raised in an orphanage, he follows orders to become a soldier, a kidnapper of Japanese citizens and an intelligence officer, once submitting to being bitten by a shark to prove his loyalty.

But after Jun Do, hero of the novel "The Orphan Master's Son," is sent to a brutal labor camp, he returns to life by impersonating a powerful member of late leader Kim Jong-il's inner circle, trying to claw out an identity of his own in a world of propaganda where only the state can win -- or does it?

To write the book, his first novel, Adam Johnson immersed himself for years in information about the secretive totalitarian state and visited the capital, Pyongyang, fascinated and saddened by North Korea's brutal absurdities.

Johnson spoke of who gets to write the stories and the indomitable Jun Do, whose name echoes "John Doe" and whose adventures take him both to Texas and meetings with Kim Jong-il.

Q: What got this story going?

A: "First I became interested just as a general reader. Once I started reading the testimonials of defectors, I went from being kind of fascinated with the absurdity of Kim Jong-il and the North Korean thought experiments, to really feeling profoundly moved and saddened by the fates of all those people.

"I also tried to find books by North Korean writers, but there was just a complete void there... Even the Russions got their novels out of the gulag, but as far as I know, no one has dared to write a literary novel that has made it out of the country without government approval in 60 years. That means it's a nation without literary art as we would imagine it, to investigate the human tradition. That means no one has read a real book about a real person in North Korea for generations.

"A lot of the non-fiction I turned to was about geopolitical things and military things, the human dimension seemed really lacking. I think that's what literary fiction can do, fill in that emotional, human core that non-fiction can't get to."   Continued...