TOKYO Jan 26 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 labour 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 . "
Q: How did you make the leap to the book?
A: "I didn't know I was writing a book for a long time,
until I realized how much time I was investing in research and
sketches and voices. I think it's the most difficult place on
Earth to be fully human. That's my job, to make people human.
"Before I went to Pyongyang, I researched Koryo Airlines,
(said to be) the most dangerous airline in the world...They said
it wasn't because of the ageing fleet. It wasn't because of the
bad maintenance. It was that several accidents occurred because
the co-pilot didn't feel able to point out an error that a pilot
had made. They couldn't break ranks to call attention to a
mistake and instead silently went down with the plane...This is
a world in which it is dangerous to point out anything, in which
it is dangerous to do anything spontaneous.
"Who are you in a land where to reveal your heart is
dangerous, makes you vulnerable? Who are you when you are
trained not to communicate your own personal thoughts and
feelings? How do you risk important things to communicate to
your family? Those ideas were central."
Q: How did you come up with Jun Do?
A: "One of the things that fascinated me about North Korea
as a writer is the idea that the stories that we tell in the
West -- and I'll say America specifically, because I have
greater knowledge of that -- are stories in which there's a
central character, and he or she is the main character in their
own lives and stories. I think in our Western narratives, people
have yearnings and desires, and they're encouraged to cultivate
them and to follow them forward, towards attaining something
that will complete them. To do this, people must overcome
obstacles and face conflict, they must look inward or into the
past to overcome these challenges and move forward to the end,
where they've probably changed, or grown, or come to some deep
"When I studied North Korea, it was just the opposite. There
was one national story, it was written by the Kims, Kim Il-sung
and Kim Jong-il, and those two respectively were the central
character. There were 23 or 24 million secondary characters.
"My character Jun Do starts off as the perfect model
citizen. But along the way, he meets Americans in the Sea of
Japan, and starts to see there's a different life. Because of
his post as a listening operator he begins to hear narratives
from other people in the world and starts to think life could be
different. But it's not until North Korea proves they don't care
about him, that he's utterly disposable, that he seeks to
rewrite his story. In the second half, he becomes a Western
character. I'm biased, I think that's a better character,
because you're allowed to find your own humanity, form your own
Q: How much of your North Korea is factual?
A: "There's a ton of fact in it, but the truth of the place
is much more elusive....One of the problems was that the true
absurdities of North Korea I couldn't even put in, because it
was unbelievable. Non-fiction can be non-believable because it's
true, but fiction must be believable. I had to leave the
darkness out of the book.
"You'll notice that my character goes into prison and it
goes blank. You flip the page and it says 'one year later.' I
don't think the Western reader can handle a real portrait of
life there. I read a narrative of abortion day in Camp 14, in
which all the unauthorized pregnancies in the camp were ended
... That's an image in my head forever, but it's too much to put
in the book. It would keep people from moving forward...
"It ended up being a very challenging and satisfying book to
write. I don't know that I told the truth of the lives of North
Koreans, I don't know if that was my aim, but I think it's given
a lot of people the occasion to reconsider their own realities,
their own identities, and the unfortunate fates of others who
live in countries where they can't be themselves."
(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Paul Casciato)