untitledWhere we are from says one character stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.

Everything hidden, mysterious and ultimately forbidden strongly attracts the imperfect human nature. The majority of people have already forgotten the meaning of the word “forbidden” – anything that even remotely attempts to take away their freedom – be it freedom of speech, act, or information – must be ultimately tackled and conquered. It’s understandable, then, that North Korea, a country completely shut out of the rest of the world, is a topic of constant interest and rumours. Nobody knows with 100% certainty what happens behind its closed doors – some say enemies of the regime are thrown to hungry dogs, others claim rich people live more or less the same life as you and me. When the time came for my book from North Korea, I was torn. Should I read something that has passed the strict eye of the Party, keeping in mind that all (or most of it) is pure propaganda? Or should I look for a book about North Korea from a more objective, yet distant and probably uninformed source? The Pulitzer-winning novel The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson leaned the scales in the later direction.

Jun Do (read John Doe), as the name suggests, has no defined identity. Born to a mother, who is stolen to be a singer in the capital of Pyongyang and a father who runs a work camp for orphans, Jun Do names himself after a saint and sees himself as part of the other orphans. The mystery of his mother’s disappearance haunts him throughout his life and leaves an unbearable emptiness, one that he seeks to fill with other women in need.

Because of his skills, Jun Do, for better or for worse, catches the attention of the state. Throughout his life Jun Do plays numerous roles – some chosen for him by the state, others chosen by himself. He becomes a fighter in the pitch-dark tunnels under the demilitarised zone, a kidnapper, a spy at sea and after a failed mission in Texas, a prisoner in a mining camp. Here ends the life of the Jun Do we know – for he is to be reborn into Kim Jong Il’s greatest enemy. In a state, which takes any identity and choice from its citizens, love and compassion towards another human being can be the biggest liability.

I am far from the idea that Adam Johnson’s depiction of life and death in North Korea is the ultimate truth. The author shares that his information is based on interviews with North Korean defectors as well as on a personal visit to the DRK. Of course, the accuracy of the information depends on the nature of the source. The defectors might have been corrupted. The reality presented to Johnson on his visit was most probably fabricated – he was allowed to visit pre-approved places and to talk to already trained people. Nevertheless, Adam Johnson skillfully imagines himself into the cruel world of Kim Jong Il. His depictions are so real and believable that one almost feels his world is the alien one, and not North Korea.

Jun Do grows from an instrument of the state to its victim, from a faceless representative of The Greatest Nation in the World to a powerful and fearless man. Through numerous points-of-view – Jun Do himself, a state interrogate and the state propaganda – Johnson portrays a cruel and ruthless world with short fleeting moments of beauty and love. Too short to be satisfactory, too long to be forgotten.

Other favourite quotes:

The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.

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Jun Do gave the smile that puts people at ease in the moment before you strike them.

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“But people do things to survive, and then after they survive, they can’t live with what they’ve done.”

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Someone will save you, he thought. If you just hold tight long enough, someone’s bound to.

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Never let pain push you into the darkness, Kisman said. There you are nobody and you are alone. Once you turn from the flame, it is over.

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To survive in this world, you got to be many times a coward but at least once a hero.

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In communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.

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I would’ve driven off the bridge and killed us both to make that moment last forever, such was my love for Sun Moon, a woman who was so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.

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The next day, she was silent. For breakfast, she murdered an onion and served it raw.

“She’s read every word I’ve written,” he said. “That’s the truest way to know the heart of another.”

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Compared to forgetting, did living really stand a change?