This is not an easy book to read. It preys on the minds of readers, on the fears and hopes that stem from our deeply ingrained cultural concepts, our habitual comfortable worldview. It takes you to the place where you can no longer be sure what is based in reality and what is the result of an absurdist deeply satirical interpretation of it.
This is a book that's set in North Korea, and its protagonist is cleverly - perhaps overly so - named Jun Do (that is, 'John Doe', the North Korean everyman, I guess). It spotlights the deeply disturbing aspects of the life in this isolated strange place - the propaganda, the police state, the prison camps, the torture-interrogations, the power of the state over individuals, the hunger, the poverty, the exploitation, the lies, the cruelty, the resignation of many to their fate, the mistrust, the crazed leaders, the corrupt almost surreal regime.
"Where we are from, he said, 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."
There's scarcely a page that is not disturbing in one way or another to its intended Western(ized) reader. There are scenes that are so suddenly graphic and painful that they will forever be etched into my memory - like a tattoo, if you allow me to use that comparison. (A certain tattoo worn over a heart is quite important in this book, just so you know). And there is not a page that does not in one way or another condemn totalitarian propaganda-based way of running the lives of people and the horrific ways little people get run over by the relentless machine of the State.
But here's the thing that kept nagging at me in that little but persistent voice that was impossible to ignore. The main punch of this book is the setting - the very real country of North Korea, perhaps the most isolated place in the world, built around the idol-like worship of its leaders, shrouded in secrets that are impenetrable to the outsiders and likely to its own people. This is the society that the Western(ized) countries tend to view as one giant prison camp that exists in its own warped version of reality, a threatening surreal enigma to the outsiders.
No wonder that a book about such a place, written by an outsider who has visited it once on a state-sanctioned tour and talked to select few who managed to escape, would have to heavily rely on speculations, assumptions, and rumors. The desire to give voice to the people of that country whose voices we likely will never hear has to be significantly helped just by imagination of the writer - that's a sad fact. And that's exactly where I came upon my stumbling block. What can Adam Johnson, an American, really know about the lives of North Koreans, other than imagine them as the embodiment of the Westerner's worst nightmares? How 'John Doe' can his Jun Do be to real North Koreans?
I believe that Johnson managed to at least somewhat capture the oppressive spirit of the life in North Korea. But the truth is, the reality - no matter how terrifying, sad and atrocious it may be - remains inaccessible to us, and it's hard to write from the heart of something when you have no real knowledge of it. After all, the Soviets and the Westerners have written and imagined plenty of atrocities about each other, and yet none of them managed to actually capture the essence of the world so foreign to them.
"Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack— if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous."
I think I'd prefer it had this book been just a speculation only, perhaps a glimpse into a fictional dystopian society (like Orwell's 1984, for instance), and not presented as representing the life in a real country full of real people because then I'd be able to allow both my brain and my heart to run with the story, to fully feel the horror and hopelessness and desperation and outrage instead of always keeping myself in check by involuntary reminders that I will never know what is real and what is created to capitalize on our society's deep fears stemming from our culture's ingrained values. And when it comes to the lives of a whole real country, these uncertainties, these questions of what is real and what is there just to make me have a desired reaction suddenly become a real huge deal to me.
“What happened?” Buc asked him.
“I told her the truth about something,” Ga answered.
"You’ve got to stop doing that,” Buc said.
“It’s bad for people’s health.”
If I let my apprehensions about this book slide, I can appreciate the story a bit more. It's definitely written well, with interesting and skillful alternations between narrators with their distinct voices, with gentle transition between the roles of Jun Do into which he's thrust by cruel fate, the willingness of the book to explore the disturbing sides of life. It manages to both keep you uneasy and yet willing to read to the end, even if you already have a good idea of what's to come. The language manages to walk the thin line between powerful and yet unobtrusive quite well. The parts that take place on the sea were my favorite, with the haunting melancholic quality that permeated the pages, with descriptions so vivid and memorable, with palpable sense of loneliness and quiet longing that is hard to forget. The weak point, however, were the characters themselves. They did feel like the vehicles to drive the plot forward, created to fulfill very specific roles and not extending much past their niche. The inclusion of the Great Leader himself felt purely commercial, as the strange figure of now dead North Korean leader is bound to elicit just the 'right' emotions from the reader. And Sun Moon, the actress who becomes a shining beacon in Jun Do's life, elicited little but irritation from me, her later reveals to Jun Do nonwithstanding. It's telling when you can really root for the characters to succeed in their daring mission because you really cannot bring yourself to care for those the mission is for. At the end, it's the spoiled and privileged who benefit - of course; but I somehow doubt that it was the intended message.
Would I recommend this book? It's hard to say. The Pulitzer people surely saw something really special in it, and they must know more about literature and literary merit than yours truly. I'd recommend it with a disclaimer - read it if you are not the type to be constantly preoccupied with doubts about the truths versus imagination in this story, read it if you can out these concerns temporarily aside and focus on the emotional punches of the story focusing on little people in the horrific totalitarian propaganda state.