The Pulitzer Prize for fiction was awarded this week to Adam Johnson for “The Orphan Master’s Son” set in North Korea. It is a very timely selection, given our interest in, puzzlement about, and fear of that country. I have revised and updated a column I wrote last year about the book and North Carolina’s connection to North Korea.
Charles Robert Jenkins. Does that name ring a bell?
Jenkins is a North Carolina native whom I have wanted to meet for a long time.
He knows something first hand about a country that is threatening to send nuclear missiles at our armed forces and at our country’s territory. This strange communist country is led by a hereditary monarchy.
I would like to talk to somebody who knows how North Korea works and how North Koreans think and live. As an outsider living half a world away, I find that this country and its people just do not make sense.
Jenkins, who was born in Rich Square, is one of a very few Americans who have lived for a substantial time in North Korea. While serving in the Korean War, Jenkins surrendered to the North Koreans and wound up living in North Korea for 40 years. As a North Carolina native, he could explain things to me in terms I could understand.
Before the Soviet Union broke up and the Iron Curtain came down, I had the same kinds of questions about life in Russia. Then in 1981, a great crime novel came to my rescue. “Gorky Park” by Martin Cruz Smith followed a Russian detective’s search for the solution to three murders.
The story was gripping, but the best part of the book was its description of how life went on inside Russia. When I finished the book, I had a feel for how people got along day-by-day in that totalitarian system.
Not being able to talk to Charles Robert Jenkins, I have wished for a “Gorky Park” type book set in North Korea.
Now I have one, Adam Johnson’s just announced winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son.” The book introduces us to the novel’s hero, Jun Do, a low level intelligence operative who listens to foreign radio signals from a North Korean fishing vessel. Sometimes the little ship crosses the waters to the Japanese coast and kidnaps ordinary people who will be required to teach North Korean spies how to speak Japanese.
This kidnapping story may seem fanciful. But Charles Robert Jenkins’s wife, whom he married in North Korea, was kidnapped, brought to North Korea, and required to teach Japanese.
In the novel Jun Do and his crewmates kidnap a popular female singer whom they believe will be destined for the entertainment of the Leader or one of his top supporters.
In flashbacks we learn of Jun Do’s growing up in an orphanage, never sure whether he is the son of the orphan master or just one of the many parentless children who are marginalized members of society. As a member of the military, he navigated the network of tunnels under the border into South Korea, opening access for spying and kidnapping there.
We learn how Jun Do was trained to accept torture as a part of the process of disciplining and conditioning to fit in and accept the government’s needs. And we step into the shoes of those who administer torture as a part of reform or punishment.
Did you notice that Jun Do might sound like “John Doe”? It is not an accident. In the early part of the book, Jun Do is the “everyman” of North Korea. Through him a reader sees and feels the ordinariness of the horror that is North Korea.
More horribly though, a reader may come to see how he or she might be able to adapt to live there and accept North Korea’s incredibly bizarre society.
The second half of the book’s story turns fanciful. Jun Do travels to the United States and makes friend and contacts. After his return, he becomes a part of the Leader’s inner circle, falls in love with the Leader’s favorite movie star, and plots to get her to the United States.
If the reader can suspend disbelief, that story is an enjoyable ride.
But what still haunts me is the first part of the book and the terribly believable story of Jun Do that shows how North Koreans really live.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch.