Dennis Rodman’s decision to desist from basketball diplomacy in North Korea and the country’s recent elections (a 100 per cent vote for Kim Jong Un) were reminders of Adam Johnson’s haunting novel, ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’. The book is like David Guttenfelder’s photographs of Pyongyang from back in early 2011. (See the remarkable series here. It feels like the world is standing, its nose pressed to the glass, eagerly looking in. There’s one, number 17, see left, which is captioned, “a woman sitting at a small table selling snacks on the roadside along the West Sea Barrage near Nampho, North Korea, on April 21, 2011”. It reminds me a little of Port au Prince, Haiti, but that is neither here nor there.)
Anyway, back to Adam Johnson and the way in which he’s brought North Korea to life, humanizing the story, refusing to exaggerate, staying scrupulously true to the writer’s creed, which he explains as follows: “The literary endeavor, the humanist endeavor, is based on the premise that we’re all the same, and I believe that.”
This is why The Washington Post rightly describes the novel as managing to turn “an elusive society into a three-dimensional world that facts alone can’t inform.” It’s quite true that the novel has created in my mind’s eye the first, fully-formed image of a city in North Korea.
Mr Johnson’s imagination is almost as exceptional as his dedication to great human dreams and endeavour. He says he asked continually asked questions, “What if I had been born in North Korea? What would I have to write as a writer? As a father …What does it mean to live versus to survive? Am I just going to survive, or am I going to live? Meaning, to be human, to realize one’s self.”