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'The Orphan Master's Son' rises

In this photo dated on February 26, 2008,

In this photo dated on February 26, 2008, a painting is seen of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il at the Grand Peoples Study Hall in the North Korea capital, Pyongyang. Credit: Getty/

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON, by Adam Johnson. Random House, 445 pp., $26.


"Where we are from, stories are factual," says a high-ranking North Korean official in Adam Johnson's startling second novel. "If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change."

How can an American, a professor of creative writing at Stanford, dare to set a story in the world's most secretive nation? Well, where we are from, when so many facts are unknowable, a story must suffice. There aren't many readers outside the Democratic People's Republic of Korea who could verify any part of "The Orphan Master's Son," yet somehow, in its urgent currents of determination and bewilderment, cruelty and longing, Johnson's carefully layered story feels authentic.

His timing, of course, is extraordinary. News coverage of the death of Dear Leader Kim Jong Il and the precarious succession of his chubby son confirms the weirdness that suffuses Johnson's tale, the truth and the fiction equally strange. World leaders are currently pondering the question that Johnson has tried to answer: What is it like to inhabit "a land where people have been trained to accept any reality presented to them"?

Pak Jun Do has come of age without questioning this training: first as the head boy in his orphanage; then as a tunnel soldier, patrolling the ink-black passageways beneath the DMZ; next as a state-sanctioned kidnapper, "plucking" victims off Japanese beaches. But even when a tunnel offers an exit within sight of Seoul, or during the reconnaissance of a Japanese seaside resort, he has never been tempted to flee. "He knew the televisions were huge and there was all the rice you could eat. Yet he wanted no part of it -- he was scared if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who'd gone blind from hunger? That would have been for nothing."

His diligence is rewarded with a year of English instruction, and then an assignment intercepting international radio signals from a listening post aboard a fishing boat. His certainty begins to shift. "The sea was spontaneous in a way he'd never seen before," and then there are the voices he transcribes, saying things that suggest mysteries he's never considered. Two American women are rowing around the world, broadcasting their thoughts. "What was it about English speakers that allowed them to talk into transmitters as if the sky were a diary?" Why does Jun Do accept his fate, while others try to change theirs?

In the end, he doesn't. Johnson's plot switchbacks through a faked shark attack, a farcical diplomatic mission to Texas and a descent into the hell of a prison mine, then reaches a peak when Jun Do assumes the identity of Commander Ga, national idol, taekwondo champion and husband of exquisite actress Sun Moon. The creation of the Dear Leader, Sun Moon is the cinematic embodiment of the hysterical nationalism with which her compatriots distract themselves from hunger, suspicion and corruption. The revelation that she is also just a human being bent on survival inspires Jun Do to assume authorship of their fate. He will resist the voice that issues incessantly from loudspeakers mounted in every home, blaring the North Korean imperative: "Refrain from the Future."

Johnson writes light-footed prose, barely allowing harrowing glimpses of atrocity to register before accelerating onward. He resists the temptation to turn his subject matter into comic fodder, but never ignores the absurdity, provoking laughter with jagged edges that tends to die in your throat. The second half of the book folds on itself, interleaving a bold plan and its consequences, bound by the voice of a young interrogator whose insane faith in the system is the flip side of Jun Do's painful enlightenment. Johnson cranks everything to an operatic pitch -- but the Dear Leader, after all, was himself an opera fan.

News photos from Pyongyang in December showed tens of thousands gathered in Kim Il Sung Square for a memorial service at which Kim Jong Un was formally declared the Great Successor to his late father. The vast plaza appeared as if carpeted in a uniform dark brown, a classic image of hard-core totalitarianism, the kind of scene the world has come to associate with North Korea. It's the kind of scene Adam Johnson doesn't bother with. Armed with an impressive amount of research and even more impressive sympathetic powers, he offers sharply sketched portraits of individuals plucked from that faceless multitude.


EXCERPT: 'The Orphan Master's Son'




At the door, he took that breath, and knocked.

Almost immediately, Sun Moon answered. She wore a loose house robe, under which her breasts swung free. He'd seen such a house robe only once before, in Texas, hanging in the bath of his guest room. That robe was white and fluffy, while Sun Moon's was matted and stained with old sauces. She was without makeup, and her hair was down, falling across her shoulders. Her face was filled with excitement and possibility and, suddenly, he felt the terrible violence of this day leave him. Gone was the combat he'd faced at the hands of her husband. Gone was the look of doom on the Warden's face. Wiped away were the multitudes Mongnan had captured on film. This house was a good house, white paint, red trim. It was the opposite of the Canning Master's house -- nothing bad had happened here, he could tell.

"I'm home," he said to her.

She looked past him, peering around the yard, the road.

"Do you have a package for me?" she asked. "Did the studio send you?"

But here she paused, taking in all the inconsistencies -- the lean stranger in her husband's uniform, the man wearing his cologne and riding in his car.

"Who are you supposed to be?" she asked.

"I'm Commander Ga," he said. "And I'm finally home."

"You're telling me you've brought no script, nothing?" she asked. "You mean the studio dressed you up like this and sent you all the way up here, and you don't have a script for me? You tell Dak-Ho I said that's cold, even for him. He's crossed a line."

"I don't know who Dak-Ho is," he said and marveled at the evenness of her skin, at the way her dark eyes locked on him. "You're even more beautiful than I imagined."

She undid the belt of her house robe, then recinched it tighter.

Then she lifted her hands to the heavens. "Why do we live on this godforsaken hill?" she asked the sky. "Why am I up here, when everything that matters is down there?" She pointed to Pyongyang far below, this time of day just a haze of buildings lining the silver Y of the Taedong River. She approached him and looked up into his eyes. "Why can't we live by Mansu Park? I could take an express bus to the studio from there. How can you pretend not to know who Dak-Ho is? Everybody knows him. Has he sent you here to mock me? Are they all down there laughing at me?"

"I can tell you've been hurting for a long time," he said. "But that's all over now. Your husband's home."

"You're the worst actor in the world," she said. "They're all down there at a casting party, aren't they? They're drunk and laughing and casting a new female lead, and they decided to send the worst actor in the world up the hill to mock me."

She fell down to the grass and placed the back of her hand against her forehead. "Go on, get out of here. You've had your fun. Go tell Dak-Ho how the old actress wept." She tried to wipe her eyes. Then, from her house robe, she produced a pack of cigarettes. She brazenly lit one -- it made her look mannish and seductive. "Not a single script, an entire year without a script."

She needed him. It was completely clear how much she needed him.

She noticed that the front door was cracked and that her children were peeking out. She hooked loose a slipper and kicked it toward the door, which was quickly pulled shut.

"I don't know anything about the movie business," he said. "But I've brought you a movie, as a gift. It's "Casablanca," and it's supposed to be the best."

She reached up and took the DVD case, dirty and battered, from his hands. She quickly glanced at it. "That one's black-and-white," she said, then threw it across the yard. "Plus I don't watch movies -- they'd only corrupt the purity of my acting." On her back in the grass, she smoked contemplatively.

"You really don't have anything to do with the studio?" she asked.

He shook his head no. She was so vulnerable before him, so pure -- how did she stay so in this harsh world? "So what are you, one of my husband's new flunkies? Sent to check on me while he goes on a secret mission? Oh, I know about his secret missions -- he alone is brave enough to infiltrate a whorehouse in Minpo, only the great Commander Ga can survive a week in a Vladivostok card den."

He crouched beside her. "Oh, no. You judge him too harshly. He's changed. Sure, he's a man who's made some mistakes, he's sorry for those, but all that matters now is you. He adores you, I'm sure of it. He's completely devoted to you."

"Tell him I can't take much more of this. Please pass that along for me."

"I'm him now," he said. "So you can tell him yourself."

She took a deep breath and shook her head. "So you want to be Commander Ga, huh?" she asked. "Do you know what he'd do to you if he heard you assume his name? His taekwondo 'tests' are for real, you know. They've made an enemy of everyone in this town. That's why I can't get a role anymore. Just make up with the Dear Leader, won't you? Can't you just bow to him at the opera? Will you give my husband that request from me? That's all it would take, a single gesture, in front of everybody, and the Dear Leader would forgive all."

He reached to wipe her cheek, but she pulled away.

"These tears in my eyes," she said. "Do you see them? Can you tell my husband of these tears?" she asked. "Don't go on any more missions, please. Tell him not to send another flunky to baby-sit me."

"He already knows," he said. "And he's sorry. Will you do something for him, a favor? It would mean so much to him."

Lying on the grass, she turned to her side, her breasts lolling under the house robe, snot running freely from her nose. "Go away," she said.

"I'm afraid I can't do that," he said. "I told you it's been a long journey, and I've only just arrived. The favor is a small one, really, it's nothing to a great actress like yourself. You know that part from "A True Daughter of the Country," where, to find your sister, you must cross the Inchon Strait, still aflame with the sinking battleship Koryo, and when you wade in, you're just a fishing-village girl from Cheju, but after swimming through the corpses of patriots in blood-red waters, you emerge a different person, now you are a woman soldier, a half-burned flag in your hands, and the line you say, you know it, will you say it to me now?"

She didn't say the words, but he thought he could see them pass through her eyes -- There is a greater love, one that from the lowest places calls us high. Yes, they were there in her eyes, that's the sign of a true actress -- being able to speak with just her expressions.

"Can you sense how right everything feels?" he asked her. "How everything's going to be different? When I was in prison -- "

"Prison?" she asked. She sat up straight. "How exactly do you know my husband?"

"Your husband attacked me this morning," he said. "We were in a tunnel, in Prison 33, and I killed him."

She cocked her head. "What?"

"I mean, I believe I killed him. It was dark, so I can't be sure, but my hands, they know what to do."

"Is this one of my husband's tests?" she asked. "If so, it's his sickest one yet. Are you supposed to report back how I responded to that news, whether I danced for joy or hanged myself in grief? I can't believe he's stooped this low. He's a child, really, a scared little boy. Only someone like that would loyalty-test an old woman in the park. Only Commander Ga would give his own son a masculinity test. And by the way, his sidekicks eventually get tested, too, and when they fail, you don't see them anymore."

"Your husband won't be testing anyone ever again," he said. "You're all that matters in his life right now. Over time, you'll come to understand that."

"Stop it," she said. "This isn't funny anymore. It's time for you to leave."

He looked up to the doorway, and standing there silent were the children -- a girl perhaps eleven, a boy a little younger. They held the collar of a dog with thick shoulders and a shiny coat. "Brando," Commander Ga called, and the dog broke free. The Catahoula bounded to him, tail wagging. It kept leaping high to lick his face, then flattening low to nip his heels.

"You got him," he said to her. "I can't believe you got him."

"Got him?" she asked. Her voice was suddenly serious. "How do you know its name?" she asked. "We've kept the dog a secret so he won't be taken by the authorities."

"How do I know his name? I named him," he said. "Right before I sent him to you last year. 'Brando' is the word that Texans use to say something is yours forever."

"Wait a minute," she said, and all the theatrics were gone. "Just who exactly are you?"

"I'm the good husband. I'm the one who's going to make everything up to you."

There was a look on her face that Ga recognized, and it was not a happy one. It expressed an understanding that everything would be different now, that the person you'd been and the life you'd been living were over. It was a tough knowledge to suddenly gain, but it got better with tomorrows. And it would be easier since she'd probably worn that look once before, when the Dear Leader gave her, as a prize, to the winner of the Golden Belt, the man who'd beat Kimura.

In his dark room in Division 42, the smoldering cigarette in Commander Ga's lips was nearly finished. It had been a long day, and the memory of Sun Moon had saved him yet again. But it was time to put her away in his mind -- she'd always be there when he needed her. He smiled a last time at the thought of her, causing the cigarette to fall from his mouth into the well where his neck curved into collarbone. There it burned slowly against his skin, a tiny red glow in an otherwise black room.

Pain, what was pain?

Excerpted from "The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson. Copyright © 2012 by Adam Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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