I wandered into this one totally blind and by sheer luck. My ever-generous friend Heather transferred a download of this audiobook to me months ago. I knew nothing about it, and so there is sat, on my iPod. Then good reviews started popping up and I threw out my usual comment "Boy I really need to listen to this". Realistically though, I probably wouldn't have gone there had it not been for Lisa at TLC Book Tours, who asked if I wanted to jump on the bandwagon. Sure why not?
Had I known anything about the plot, though, I'm not sure I would have made this same decision. It just isn't the type of book that speaks to me. I guess I stand corrected.
Synopsis: In an epic, revealing tale of the mysterious North Korea, we are introduced to Jun Do, the "son" of an administrator of a North Korean orphanage. He believes he is truly the man's son, even though he is treated like all the other orphans, and given a name of one of the 114 Grand Martyrs akin to "John Doe". Appropriately then, our John Doe takes on many roles and shifting personalities in his life. He is a patrolman of the dark tunnels beneath the DMZ, then recruited to kidnap Japanese citizens. He learns English, then is assigned to a fishing ship to monitor foreign radio transmissions. Through a series of mishaps, he is deemed a national hero and acts as a diplomat on a trip to Texas. From there he is imprisoned in a labor camp, where he goes hand to hand with the evil Commander Ga, kills him and then impersonates him, all the way down to acting as husband to his beautiful actress wife.
The story is narrated through three voices: that of a propaganda announcer, of Jun Do, and of a young, idealistic interrogator. The story is also separated into two parts - that which happened before Jun Do "became" Commander Ga, and after, when he becomes consumed with Ga's wife and children. Ambitious in scope, we walk in the shoes of a sort of conscientious objector in a regime that has no tolerance of such behavior. Through two men, we see the roles available to those who serve Kim Jong-il. Heartbreakingly, we see their inner hopes and dreams and sense of responsibility, and what must be sacrificed to survive.
My thoughts: All of this drama may seem unlikely and even a little over-the-top, but in Johnson's capable hands, he takes it on and wins. However, I didn't start off loving it. I couldn't figure out what the HECK was going on. I was confused. Wasn't he just on a boat with fishermen? Now he is in Texas? Now he is prison? What just happened? I almost stopped around disc 5, blaming it on my listening skills. But I persevered, and after awhile I got completely sucked into the slipstream of the craziness. North Korea is a little surreal anyway, isn't it? With it's rules governed by one narcissistic, fallible man (now the narcissist's son who looks like a spoiled rich kid), the brainwashed nature of their citizens, and the unbalanced distribution of resources. A hell on Earth, it seems to me. Unconventional tales of adventure seem to belong in this land.
I think everyone in the US sort of knows about the backwardness and absurdity of North Korea, but it was the graphic novel "Pyongyang" that made my blood turn cold, and really made me stop and think about what life might be like over there. If this book is any indication (and I'm assuming it is, since the author actually visited there), to step foot over there would be my worst nightmare.
I found it pretty humorous that the author includes many interactions with the Dear Leader, and portrayed him as a goofy, self-absorbed whack job. I'm sure some poetic license was taken here, but how could he not be?
Overall, this was one bizarre reading experience, one that you have to work for, but one worth the effort. It was no easy feat to even begin to describe it, and it continues to linger in my mind days after I finished.
A few words about the audio production: The audio featured three narrators - Tim Kang, Josiah D. Lee, and James Kyson Lee. Each were excellent, with authentic accents (even a Texan one!) and made the listening experience one of total immersion. It doesn't appear that any of them have much experience at audio narration but you would never know.
Listening length: 19 hours and 22 minutes (464 pages)
4.5 out of 5 stars