Sunday, March 27, 2016

Meet some quirky North Koreans in Adam Jonson's fiction

Know anyone from North Korea?

I don't. But I feel that I do now, after reading Adam Johnson';s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Orphan Master's Son."

Johnson is not from either Korea, as evidenced by his name. Nothing in his book jacket bio mentions that he lived in Korea or taught there or even briefly sojourned there. I am sure I can find more info on the Internet. But right now I am content to let a fiction writer weave his magic spell.

Johnson acquaints me with North Koreans, those benighted folks who live in the most backward and isolated country on the planet. Jun Do is the orphan master's son who, at the orphanage, is given the toughest jobs in the place by his father and, in turn, assigns the actual orphans even grimmer tasks. As a teen, Jun Do is spirited away by the government and learns how to be a night fighter in North Korea's many tunnels. Because he has an orphan name, others refer to him that way. His usual response, "I'm not an orphan." Nobody seems to believe him. His response becomes predictable and funny. In fact, This novel is filled with humor, a pleasant surprise since Westerners are supposed to feel nothing but sorrow and pity about North Korea.

I'm only a third of the way through the book. It's one of those that you read late into the night, forgetting that the witching hour has come and gone.

One other aspect of Johnson -- he writes terrific short stories. I first read his work in the short fiction collection, "Fortune Smiles." The title story features two North Koreans who have defected to the South. Such magnificent creations. Only one is fitting in to this new land, the other has all the anti-establishment swagger of Kesey's R.P. McMurphy. This is odd and endearing, since he comes from super-authoritarian North Korea. How did he survive there -- and why does he want to go back?

While you're absorbing Johnson's short stories, read "Hurricanes Anonymous." I was dubious about reading yet another story set in post-Katrina New Orleans. As always, the drama and humor is in the characters and how they face up to the situation. We humans are a strange bunch. It's masterful writer who can help us see a small band of them in new and unusual ways.

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