I picked up The Orphan Master’s Son at a local bookstore in a going-out-of-business sale (sad, the death of bookstores). I had already grabbed Haruki Murakami’s wonderful 1Q84, but I noticed a striking cover near the register and recognized the title as one I’d read about in connection with North Korea. The woman behind the desk saw me notice it and chimed in that it was an incredible book. On her authority, I added it to my loot.
But, as I read through the first hundred pages of The Orphan Master’s Son, I realized a sad truth: I am almost totally uninterested in fictional accounts of North Korea.
How could I be, when the truth is so wondrous and strange?
It’s odd—I like to read most any fiction, especially historical fiction about real-world places. Even though the The Orphan Master’s Son is set in the very recent past, it feels like historical fiction. North Korea is as inaccessible as the past, for most of us; we might read about it, and maybe we can talk to people who have been there, but we can’t go there.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Johnson expressed a similar feeling. He said, “It didn’t quite feel like I was writing about a place that was far away as much as it felt far ago.” For him, that was partly because of how anachronistic North Korea seemed (he spent six days there in 2007); they haven’t been able to modernize their factories, for instance, so they are still churning out brand-new 1958-style pickup trucks and 1963-style refrigerators.
That kind of small detail is fascinating to me when I find it in interviews, but I feel unable to trust it in the framework of fiction. I didn’t realize how much I crave true information about North Korea, but it seems I do. There is so little truth to go on; I don’t like reading anything that will confuse fact and fiction or perpetuate simple stereotypes in my mind.
I can’t really review the book fairly without having read it. So I won’t do that; instead, I want to share some of the fascinating things Johnson learned while he was researching the book.
What Johnson Learned
As part of his research, Johnson visited North Korea for six days in 2007; he was part of a special “VIP tourist” group arranged by a friend who worked with an NGO. He has photos from the trip on Flickr; they are beautiful.
He has a wonderful knack for spotting details that really make a place come alive. This is evident in the photos themselves, and in the description of his visit in the captions and in other interviews.
He was struck by the absence of planes in the sky. There was just one flight per week from Beijing, and one flight every two weeks from Vladivostok. Add to that the general lack of cars, and everything seemed eerily quiet.
He rode the Pyongyang Metro while he was there; it lies 400 feet below ground, to double as a bomb shelter. The escalators coming out of it are so long, and run so slowly (half the speed of Moscow’s, Johnson says) that many people sit down while they ride, though signs warn against it. Riding the subway cars themselves, there was a calming effect because of the lack of electricity.
He flew in on Air Koryo. The plane took the long way around by following the coastline from China to the Korean peninsula; that told Johnson the pilots didn’t have functional guidance systems. The airport runway was tiny, and cattle wandered freely across it.
These details drove his depiction of North Korea in the book; in a long radio interview with Diane Rehm, he said, “I wanted to go there to get that verisimilitude, those real-life details you’d never know unless you were there.”
For further information, Johnson also read whatever non-fiction he could find; he “became just kind of obsessed with these narratives,” he said in the same interview.
He read the Rodong Shinmun—the most widely read newspaper in North Korea and the daily newspaper of the Worker’s Party of Korea—every morning for six years to get a sense for the propaganda voice that figures prominently in the book’s narrative. And he read books; in 2004 he read The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a memoir by Kang Chol-hwan about life in a North Korean prison camp. He was also fascinated by the story of Shin Dong-hyuk (the subject of the newly-released biography Escape from Camp 14) and David Hawk’s The Hidden Gulag.
So, Should You Read It?
Barbara Demick, the LA Times’ Beijing bureau chief and the author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, gave the novel a very positive review. She said that Johnson “managed to capture the atmosphere of this hermit kingdom better than any writer I’ve read.”
That’s high praise. Demick did worry that readers might have “a hard time figuring out where fact leaves off and fiction begins.” She hits the nail on the head for me; I worry the same thing, but I trust that readers who bear in mind the fact that they are reading fiction will be just fine.
The Orphan Master’s Son is published by Penguin Books.