Picaresque – it's a word I've always liked, but it's hard to throw into an everyday conversation. But it's a perfect adjective for Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son. Dictionary.com defines it as “Of or relating to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero”. And Johnson's hero Jun Do certainly qualifies. But because his adventures take place within the confines of the isolated, secretive, repressive country of North Korea under the regime of Kim Jung-Il, they are far more sinister and harrowing than those of a picaresque hero like Don Quixote or Huck Finn.
But Johnson's story is far more than just a string of tales. In a country where loudspeakers blare non-stop propaganda into apartments and on the streets, Jun Do manages to evolve from a cog in the all-consuming machine of state to an individual with an ethos somewhat warped by his upbringing but not controlled by the group-think of his leaders. Yet his story is not a political polemic – Jun Do warmed my heart and broke it. He made me laugh and cry. Johnson opened my eyes to the incredible hardship and brutality of life in North Korea, even as he wove a story of courage, humor, and even romance.