Saturday, 12 July 2014

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON by Adam Johnson

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON is a strange novel, being an action fantasy disguised as a literary novel set in North Korea. It tells the story of an orphan who is sure he is not an orphan, because the terrible treatment he receives from the orphan master is only explicable for him as an attempt to hid his great affection for his son. This sad and weird reasoning sets the tone for what is a very odd book.

The orphan goes on to be in the army, then on a fishing boat, then in a prison mine, then he is the prime taekwondo hero of North Korea, before going on to torture and death. I think it's supposed to be magically real, but I just found it so unlikely as to be difficult to engage with. However, I do wonder how else one can write a novel about North Korea, a country so utterly improbable that I suspect any story there would not seem probable. The book gives horrible detail on the experience of prison mines, for example, where prisoners are pushed in to the mine, and never let out again at all. They simply come to the gate when they find ore, and are able to exchange the ore for candles and food, but they never seen sunshine again. It's also horribly comic, as when a Korean movie star sees CASABLANCA for the first time, and asks: "But I do not understand. What is this film glorifying?"

While I did not enjoy the book very much, I did find it interesting to learn about North Korea. I can't believe such a country actually exists; it seems like some kind of low budget horror movie, not a real place on the map.

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