Pak Jun Do, the hero of Adam Johnson’s novel “The Orphan Master’s Son,” is a North Korean macho man who suffers deeply but silently.
That’s a good thing for the reader, given the amount of bone breaking, shark biting, lip busting, flesh ripping, skin burning, poison swallowing, cattle prodding and electronic lobotomizing that goes on in this book, much of it directed toward him. He grimaces and soldiers on.
Jun Do’s early training is in the tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, where he learns fighting in the dark, a skill that will serve him later:
“In the tunnels, Jun Do had developed a sense of people he couldn’t see. If they were out there, he could feel it, and if he could get within range, he could home in on them.”
In the book’s first and most harrowing section, he’s dragooned into kidnapping for the North Korean government, which means sneaking onto Japanese shores to overpower and drag off unsuspecting citizens who will never be heard from again. (He is said to have received “special training” that makes him “not have feelings when bad things happen to other people.”)
Later he spends time on a fishing boat as an intelligence officer intercepting encrypted transmissions, disliked by the crew for the danger he brings. They fear the American patrols in international waters and, far more intensely, their own government, which they know will ship them all to the gulag if anything goes wrong.
Johnson ships us there, of course -- to a prison mine where life expectancy is six months and a slave laborer who lucks into a handful of moths (“their furry abdomens drying his mouth, despite the goop that burst from them”) is grateful for the nutrition.
The horrors ramp up and up until, at some point, they turn into storybook horrors. And with that, the tone changes.
“The Orphan Master’s Son” starts off as a grimly serious examination of life and conscience in the totalitarian hell of Kim Jong Il’s North Korea. It winds up as an exciting escape tale that pivots on the love between the bravest man and the most beautiful woman in the land --a sweeping, schlocky, Hollywood-style romantic thriller.
The plot is dense and full of surprises. It takes Jun Do from the very bottom of the social heap all the way up to the entourage of Kim Jong Il, the fearsome “Dear Leader” who died this past December. Kim is the most expertly drawn of Johnson’s characters: a dimpled bundle of smiling menace who’s got a whole country to practice his sadism on.
The book’s second half also introduces a conscientious torturer who could be one of the keepers of Room 101 in “1984.” The connection is hardly a surprise, since Orwell wrote “1984” as a way of dissecting Stalinism, and Soviet Stalinism was a grade-school version of the propaganda-bellowing, leader-idolizing system that North Korea later developed.
“Know that this is a story of growth and redemption, one in which enlightenment is gained by the lowliest of figures,” Johnson writes in one of many passages designed to parody North Korean-style propaganda. Parody or not, that’s pretty much what happens to Jun Do.
Johnson put several years of research into “The Orphan Master’s Son,” but what he has come up with -- for better or worse -- is a big, juicy, enjoyably pain-drenched potboiler. A movie, which seems inevitable, could do for the Korean instrument known as the gayageum what the big-screen version of “Dr. Zhivago” did for the balalaika.
“The Orphan Master’s Son” is published by Random House in the U.S. and will be published in the U.K. by Doubleday on Feb. 16 (443 pages, $26, 18.99 pounds). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)