The Orphan Masters Son

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If readers like the writing, like the plot twists, like the characters, then good on them. It might as well be me. Let me be clear. We might begin with a simple fact. The author of the book admits he knows next to nothing about North Korea. How could he set a book in North Korea and say nothing about the country in all the interviews and book tour appearances?

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It may simply have been a decision that came out of thin air. If no one knows anything about North Korea, if everyone is equally ignorant, then there is no danger, and certainly no harm, in taking everyone for a nice ride, is there? It is as if—and this is probably not an accurate description of how the writing went, only how it looks—the author had a pile of notecards with the names of North Korean products, streets, and factories and threw them in at the appropriate places in order to show familiarity with his subject.

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I sympathize with the problem. In one of the Inspector O books, the setting for a key section was a town on the border between North Korea and China. Not having been there, I sweated the details. Finally, I decided simply to invent an entirely new town next to the existing one and give it a made-up name.

It only represented reality.

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Or rather, it crept up on reality, especially the part about the girls with long legs. All of which brings us to the edge of the central problem. Does Mr. Johnson owe his readers an explanation that he does not really know much about North Korea?

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The book, after all, is fiction, not social science. But no one reads it to learn anything about the history of WWII.

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No, Mr. But he has other opportunities—as do the publisher and publicists. This impresses critics and readers as a sign of his seriousness of purpose and familiarity with the place.

All right, you say, the book is fiction! If all a fiction writer wants to do is sharpen his sense of place for the setting of a story, six days might do the trick.

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As for the rest of his knowledge of North Korea, the author himself says it comes from a few books, defector accounts, and the Internet. That a book seriously advertised as portraying the human condition in North Korea relies on the Internet for its grasp of the place is, or at least ought to be, startling.

Not everything has to be from original, or even secondary sources, of which the Internet has some. But from third, fourth, and even fifth-hand sources? In his public appearances, Mr. Johnson occasionally says that if someone has access to an alternate Internet with additional information about North Korea, he would like to see it.

In the following passage, he speaks about the torture of a university professor caught playing illegal South Korean pop songs to his students.

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We ramp up the pain to inconceivable levels, a shifting, muscular river of pain. Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity—the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins the crossing. In a few weeks, he will be a contributing member of a rural farm collective, and perhaps we can even find a widow to comfort him.

The book both opens and closes with these hectoring passages.

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  • This is the sort of avuncular despot who would beam and clap you on the shoulder one moment, and then ship you off to the Gulag the next. Johnson has said he actually had to rein in his own version of Kim Jong-Il, worried that the real-life excesses of the Dear Leader would come across as phoney or contrived. Backed by the world of make-believe created by official propaganda, this is a leader who treats North Korea and its people as personal playthings, to be used and disposed of at will. When Kim Jong-Il died last year, many observers in the West were puzzled by the displays of public mourning that took place in Pyongyang.

    For days, apparently ordinary men and women wept and flagellated themselves in the snow-filled squares of the capital, like aggrieved relatives ready to heave themselves into the grave of a departed loved one.

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