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In Prison 33, little by little, you relinquished everything, starting with your tomorrows and all that might be. Next went your past, and suddenly it was inconceivable that your head had ever touched a pillow, that you'd once used a spoon or a toilet, that your mouth had once known flavors and your eyes had beheld color beyond gray and brown and the shade of black blood took on. Before you relinquished yourself -- Ga had felt it starting, like the numb of cold limbs -- you let go of all the others, each person you'd once known. They became ideas and then notions and then impressions, and then they were as ghostly as projections against a prison infirmary.
Pak Jun Do is the only boy in the orphanage that isn't an orphan. He is the son of the orphan master, hence the title of this book, which tells the story of his ever changing identity and his truly remakable life. I saw someone call the book dystopian, and it is truly one of the most harrowing dystopias I have read, and it takes place in contemporary North Korea.
I won't say much about the plot of the book, because it would be easy to give something away. Instead, I'll talk about my reactions to the book, which may be more intense than to any that I've read this year. At first, I had a lot of trouble getting into the book, maybe for the first 100 pages, but then I was hooked. I had read that the book was a satire, and although there are certainly humorous aspects, the book is also violent and tragic (not that satire can't be that, and certainly the story contains deep irony and moments of burlesque). Somewhere in the middle of the book, I realized all that I didn't know about North Korea, and went to the library to check out some nonfiction books to learn more. The book expanded my knowledge.
The book has a lot to say about storytelling, which is the fabric that holds together the North Korean society. Stories are told through songs displaying citizens' commitments to nationalism, through myths and stories told to the orphans, in the operas so loved by The Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, and the volumes and volumes he writes espousing his philosophies. Stories are told over the radio that Pak Jun Do listens to nightly, intercepting American transmissions from the boat on which he works, and through the photographs taken by him and by the official "prison photographer" in the labor camps. They are told by the second narrator of the book, a self-appointed official biographer of those subject to torture by the DPRK secret police, and over the loudspeaker broadcasting propaganda into all the people's homes daily. And of course, there is the story that Adam Johnson tells in his amazing book. These stories can be lies or truths, and untangling the imagined from the "real" in the narrative is tempting. However, at the heart of the book, it is truthful, whether the details are accurate or no, and in the back matter of the book there is an interview with Johnson in which he states, "If literature is a fiction which tells a deeper truth, I feel my book is a very accurate portrayal of how the tenets of totalitarianism eat away at the things that make use human: freedom, art, choice, identity, expression, love." What else could I ask for from a storyteller?
Title:The Orphan Master's SonAuthor: Adam Johnson
Publisher: Random House
Where I got it: From the publisher through TLC Book Tours
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