If you are unlucky enough to live in North Korea, your motivations and desires don’t matter. You are told who you are to be and if you resist, you will be sent to a labor camp where you will do hard labor until you die an early death. The state issues your clothing and shoes and ration cards.
Thanks to government censorship and its propaganda machine, everyone reads the same media and prescribes to the same philosophy: Working towards the common good.
It’s this lack of individuality in the face of such brutality that was attractive to writer Adam Johnson. So much so he set his new novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” within the totalitarian regime.
Johnson tells us that it wasn’t the mystery nor the creepiness of North Korea that won him over (although that was certainly tempting for a writer) — it was the idea of what it means to be a character in your own life when you have no say in who you are.
He clarifies: “Here in the West, you are the main person in the story of your life — everyone else is a secondary character. We have motivations and desires and, in the end, we change and grow and gain wisdom in some way,” says Johnson. “In North Korea, there is one central character — the Dear Leader — and 23 million secondary characters. Everyone is constricted to be an unwilling participant in a national narrative they have no control over.”
Despite having no free will, Johnsons’ lead character, Pak Jun Do, is able to endure and thrive and create his own destiny. With a touch of magical realism, Johnson’s Pak Jun Do undergoes some unbelievable situations. But, then again, North Korea is an unbelievable place.
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“How do people inhabit themselves in a world that is so circumscribed?” Johnston asks rhetorically. “How do you become an individual? Those are questions I’m fascinated with.”