Monday, March 30, 2015

Harvests reaped and hungers unsated

"You are going to die," I told him.
"But I will die decently," he said, pausing. "Isn't that what we should live for?"  
His question had a quality of coldness, of challenge.
Reading the first book, PO-ON, of the Rosales series last year by prolific Filipino writer and living legend F. Sionil Jose was a gruellingly reflective experience that awoken a dormant passion of the nationalistic sense within me that I never thought I ever had to begin with. I would go as far as to say that this should have been a required reading in schools all across my country, and it baffles me now that it's wasn't. Simply put, this series is an extraordinary piece of work that needs to be celebrated and read every day because of its relevant commentary in the Philippine society as a whole, using no other than the means of fiction to deliver across some of the most crucial and moving points regarding the state of our post-colonial country.

The Rosales saga is comprised of five books with stories told across history starting with the Spanish era down to the Martial Law years. Each story is interrelated or consequential of the one before it. The stories' shared setting is the Ilocos region, particularly the Rosales area. We follow the lives of a select family for every installment who lives in Rosales.

In Po-On, we have the story of the Salvador family as told by the eldest son Istak, narrating the events starting from the moment they were driven from their lands to seek out a new home after one of their own committed a crime, and then as they venture on in a trip so often beautifully and tragically reminiscent of the Biblical text, Exodus. The struggles of this ordinary family could have easily been our own as well, and it's with the characters of Istak and Dalin that Po-On weaves a tale so engrossing that even the most subtle details in their lives such as their vulnerabilities and sentimentalities become nearly sublime. It was just a remarkable story about a Filipino's ruthless quest for freedom and identity which still rings true even to this day.
 
"The balete tree--it was there for always, tall, leafy and majestic. In the beginning, it sprang from the earth as vines coiled around a sapling. The vines strangled the young tree they had embraced. They multiplied, fattened and grew, became the sturdy trunk, the branches spread out to catch the sun. And beneath this tree, nothing grows!"

Meanwhile, in Tree, the approach is vastly different from its predecessor. Now written in first-person narrative, this story is almost autobiographical if not for the fact that the narrator himself (who remains unnamed) was actually more focused on telling the stories of specific relatives, including their idiosyncrasies,  most striking experiences and eventual end. This makes Tree more of an exploration of a social status than a personal one where the focal family are haciendero elites during the American era. They supervise the lands owned by the feudal mogul Don Vincente (who interestingly enough becomes the main character in the next book), as well as the lives of modest farmers who have no choice but to work these lands with barely enough compensation.

Chronologically designed to follow the tale of this unnamed narrator from childhood to college years, Tree is semi-autobiographical because of this, but readers never learn about the narrator as much as they learn about his family's way of life, and the servants with their children within his household and out there in the farmlands. What follows then are chapters specifically devoted to certain relatives (mostly his uncles) or childhood friends and their families who have worked tirelessly for him and his father all throughout their lives. In the span of seventy pages or so, the narrator would recall circumstances in his childhood that would allow readers to develop their own insights and interpretations as to the harsh realities the people around him are striving to get through while he himself was living rather comfortably if not ignorantly as a rich haciendero's son.

As he grows older, the narrator has learned to understand the subtleties of the socio-political climate during those times, as well as the unending class struggle and corruption happening around him, but he was still ultimately powerless to do anything about them. In this sense, Tree is more intimately close to the way modern Filipinos react to the dire situations of the politics that dominate our lives these days, fully aware of the persistent effects and yet a great number of us would still rather choose to remain individually negligent in finding solutions to the nation's prevalent social diseases. Not because of apathy but more as a product of collective exhaustion because the corruption of the rich and the abuse of the poor has become too much of a convenient commonplace that we are no longer moved to act against this terrible status quo.

Tree only has a hundred and thirty-five pages which meant that it can be consumed within two days or so. With this brevity, the story itself is engaging in such a way that each chapter deliberately and seamlessly explores what it means to live in a world where people are suffering on different levels of oppression; that whether rich or poor, a family and the individual can suffer because of the overall inequality in the society they live in. Tree's metaphor of the balete tree found in the story further emphasizes this truth; a seemingly noble tree that is a centuries old can also be viewed as a parasitic entity that thrives in expense of the plants surrounding its breadth, much like those who live in luxury and comfort indirectly harms those who are less fortunate than they are.

Perhaps through this novel, F. Sionil Jose is making the argument that such a dog-eat-dog mentality will always be the natural state of things which allow only the strongest (if not ruthless) to survive, and now perhaps it's merely up to us as a nation whether or not to embrace this evolutionary state, or rebel against it and redefine our place.

RECOMMENDED: 9/10

Monday, March 23, 2015

True terror lies in what we cannot always know


 
"Even death may die.."

American author H.P Lovecraft is such a prominent and prolific horror writer that a subgenre of horror was even named after him. Lovecraftian horror involves "the cosmic horror of the unknown and the unknowable more than gore or other elements of shock". With this mind, I was quite excited to read this anthology which collected his finest eighteen short stories throughout the years. This paperback edition I own even includes a great introductory essay to the life and times of Lovecraft, as well as explanatory notes that serve as expansions of ideas taken from his stories; a glossary that also offers more insights to his writing process, influence and conceptualization. Frankly, I think The Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Stories is a fascinating though difficult read.

I have my reservations both in reviewing and recommending this anthology. I don't believe this is exactly something anyone can just enjoy and appreciate. In fact, upon closer inspection, I found that most tales included in this volume are interrelated, if not indirectly referential of each other. This is probably because Lovecraft, like all great literary masters, has created his own fictional universes where these stories breathe. For example, mentions of  the place Arkham happens frequently, as well as the elusive grimoire known as the Necronomicon. This could mean that for a novice, the collection may get alienating here and there. If this is the very first Lovecraft material you will ever read, then I think this particular anthology might baffle you at times because the degree of difficulty to his prose that might not be accessible to a reader more used to a contemporary and more straightforward style of storytelling, particularly when it comes to horror.

Speaking of which, I rather found Lovecraft's style challenging myself. There are so many adjectives and lengthy phrases; his general tonality can be bizarrely bone-dry in delivery which sometimes dilutes whatever horrific or terrifying plot thread you're supposed to be following. To be perfectly honest, a few of the stories in the volume have rendered me sluggish, mostly because I could predict the ending. In addition to that, there are three of four stories that are mostly repetitive, thematic-wise. I think these are my major criticisms of the anthology in general. However, his style isn't necessarily a bad thing though. When a certain story being told is unbelievably haunting and evocative, Lovecraft's prose can put you under a terrifying trance. What such stories excel in isn't about the gore or the shocking twist, really. It's the slow-burning build-up that leads to the tragedy. The Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Stories is ruthlessly engaging when you least expect it to and that's what made the obstacles along the way worth conquering as a reader.

I think this anthology would be more enjoyable when one's focus is singular. You can consume this in a slower pace if it means developing a richer and deeper understanding of what makes Lovecraft's stories so magnetic. Personally, I would re-read the stories again just so I can spot more connections among them. After all, I think this volume doesn't even cover the wide expanse of the Lovecraft universe, particularly that of the Cthulu mythos which is a rather influential piece of fiction and a tirelessly imaginative lore that has enchanted other writers across generations to contribute their own works to this perplexing creature of the most visceral and unknowable of horrors ever realized in fiction. The story Festival is credited as probably the first time Lovecraft has tried to weave Cthulu mythos for the very first time. I highly suggest that you and I check out more about said mythos in other collections.

I only have five stories that I would consider absolute favorites because they spoke to me in the most unpleasant yet invigorating ways. Understandably, I must include the namesake The Call of Cthulhu which was simply the stuff that makes nightmares real. Elaborate and layered with puzzles within puzzles, this story leaves so much to the reader's interpretation as it slowly crawls its way into your consciousness; right until the moment when you realize that it's irreversibly stuck in the damaged corners of your own mind. Two other stories like Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family and The Picture in the House are astounding because Lovecraft has woven them in a way that makes the discovery at the end so dreadful to comprehend. The suspense in these stories are unforgivably subtle, as if it only managed to graze my skin, but further reflection of these tales would reveal just how much they made me slightly sick to my stomach.

The stories Herbert West -- Reanimator and The Rats in the Walls really got under my skin. The former was definitely the best horror story I ever read about resurrecting dead people that I think rivals even Mary Shelley's classical novel Frankenstein. I could imagine watching the story unfold on screen which was why I want to watch the said film version of this story soon enough. Meanwhile, the latter story almost, sort of, destroyed me. It was an exploration of madness that is so hard to put in words even as I type this review unless one has dabbled in something akin to it (which, unfortunately, I once had back when I was less in control of my mental state as a young girl). The Rats in the Walls symbolize a rude awakening where there really is no way you can ever go back; where a physical manifestation of your fears become a consuming preoccupation that can deteriorate the rest of your soul. I think there are many levels to this story that will make for a fruitful discussion. It's almost painful for me to read this tale without cringing in revulsion and distress.

Some other noteworthy tales to read are The Whisperer in Darkness, The Colour Out of Space, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and The Haunter of the Dark. They are deft and daring in concept and execution and would make you question certain comfortable things in life after finishing them.

In a nutshell, H.P Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulu and Other Weird Stories is a worthwhile and challenging reading experience that I can only recommend to people who are prepared for something drastically eye-opening. The very best of the stories included in this anthology are like itches you can only keep scratching if the relief you garner from it also means that you have to bleed.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A certain evanescent and unknowable scent

"...people could close their eyes to greatness, to horrors, to beauty, and their ears to melodies or deceiving words. But they could not escape scent. For scent was a brother of breath. Together with breath it entered human beings, who could not defend themselves against it, not if they wanted to live. And scent entered into their very core, went directly into their hearts, and decided for good and all between affection and contempt, disgust and lust, love and hate. He who ruled scent ruled the hearts of men." ~p. 155
There are two scents that I can remember rather sharply as long as I close my eyes and focus on them. The first one is the cigarette smell of my father's breath every time he kisses me as a child. It was probably the very reason I started smoking in the first place when I was only twelve years old because it was a scent that I associated with love and affection at that time. Even though he quit the habit when I was fourteen, I will always think of cigarette smoke as my father's signature scent, and breathing it in also comes with the fond recollection of my carefree innocence and the safety of a strong, paternal figure who will always protect me. That particular scent has etched on me so distinctly and completely that I instinctively have those warm feelings to this day whenever I'm at a social gathering with friends whose second-hand smoke is essentially a kind of nostalgia that intoxicates me. The second smell is my high school best friend's shampoo whose brand I never found out by name but it's something I can spot with my nose even from a distance. As soon as I encounter that shampoo scent, there's a lightness to my step when I approach it, knowing it's her, the love of my life then who fills up my breathing space with something extraordinary every day.

In 2009, an upperclassman in college recommended the film adaptation of this book back when I didn't even know about this German novel. The movie starring Ben Whishaw as the lead role was something quite unforgettable in concept even if the delivery of the story itself felt lacking. Nevertheless, it was truly a bizarre story, one that confounds and disturbs--a spooky examination of the powerful extent that our olfactory sense has on us, like how certain smells can trigger memories and emotions in an inexplicable manner. I didn't like the movie as much but the plot and character did stay with me until I found out a copy of this book three years ago for the Manila International Book Fair.

"There are scents that linger for decades. A cupboard rubbed with musk, a piece of leather drenched with cinnamon oil, a glob of ambergris, a cedar chest--they all possess virtually eternal olfactory life. While other things evaporate within a few hours if they are exposed to the air in a pure, unbound form. The perfumer would bind scents that are too volatile, by putting them in chains, so to speak, taming their urge for freedom--though his art consists of leaving enough slack in the chains for the odor seemingly to preserve its freedom even when it is tied so deftly that it cannot flee." p. 193

Patrick Süskind's 1985 novel Perfume: The Story of a Murderer closely follows the dark tale of the orphan and aspiring perfumer Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who was born with an acute sense of smell. Puzzlingly enough, he has no smell of his own. This is a symbolic characteristic that I find poignant.

The book was set in mid-century France, specifically in the grimy and filthy streets of Paris whose awful and wondrous variety of scents has drawn someone of Grenouille's special ability in the first place. In part, Perfume reads as a straightforward biography of the protagonist mostly told in the perspectives of the different men and women who have encountered him. It was by the last hundred pages of the novel that the narrative is transformed into a serial-killer suspenseful tale which was well worth the wait, given the amount of time that the author has spent earlier in the book, crafting a rather slow-burning pace that led to Grenouille's growing awareness concerning his prowess and the ultimate goal he must reach. I thought Süskind's style was a great exercise of literary discipline where he not only have to vividly capture olfactory descriptions throughout the novel, but also possess a greater understanding of what a creature like Grenouille must live like, as well as how he responds to his environment and humanity in general. With his gift, he never quite developed inherent qualities like empathy since he is only able to know people in the most visceral yet hollow of ways by associating everything a human being is through smell alone.


"Beneath his mask, there was no face but only his total ordorless." ~p. 241

Grenouille's repulsion towards humans become more apparent once he fully embraced his narcissism and uniqueness, arguing that he must be above humankind because of his acute olfactory functions. He can create and concoct scents that can deceive people and he takes much pride in this feat. His feelings of superiority and alienation heavily stems from the fact that he never had any kind of meaningful connection or relationship with another person. He might as well be a new breed of human altogether and he knows this only too punishingly well. Suskind described Grenuoille as unremarkable in appearance, very inconspicuous and frail that he would hardly ever make an impression. In spite of Grenouille's bloated sense of worth, he remains very much human because he still possesses that natural inclination of ours to desire and wish for love. Grenouille does want to be accepted and loved even if it's in the most twisted way imaginable; and the grave road he paved to acquire just that is absolutely frightening. Deeply motivated to "rob a living being its aromatic soul" in substitute of his own, Grenouille mistakes this for happiness.

Grenouille begins to seek the ultimate olfactory concoction found in the odors of adolescent girls whom he began to hunt down in order to acquire their essence and store it in a perfume bottle. This is the most engaging part of the entire novel; his desire to create a perfume that makes him irresistible to humans. It is sad when you think about it. What Grenouille simply wants to accomplish is to reaffirm his existence through defining his relevance in the only manner he is capable of. Under the threat of population and emphasis on the significant role of the majority versus the individual, Grenouille feels invisible, taking comfort in the lie that this does not bother him when it in fact imprisons him in a state of mind where no one can reach him. 

Jean-Baptiste Grenouille [is] a compelling character designed to exploit a deeply embedded cultural fascination with the criminal genius...Grenouille's appeal derives from the similarity of this homicidal predator of eigtheenth-century France with present-day serial killers, real and fictional, who continue to attract both artistic and public interest. As a serial killer, Grenouille conforms to a profile established by current clinical research linking the narcissistic borderline personality with homicidal psychopaths. Severe emotional traumas in early life have blocked the healthy internalizations needed to build a stable core self. Lacking coherent self-structure as the basis for internalizing authority, he has no superego. Guilt is not an aspect of his consciousness; he murders merely to acquire the materials necessary for his art."
~The Poetics of Melancholia and Mourning
 

With such a painstakingly layered and symbolic themes that populate this book, there have been a handful of analyses and interpretations about Perfume out there which are also available online. The most striking article I've read about it (as quoted above) asserts that 'the novel is a cautionary fable revealing how the Enlightenment ideal of individual autonomy is all-too-easily subverted by instrumental reason to produce the ego pathology that increasingly infects modern society.' Granted, this analysis mostly focuses on the subversions and criticism on Romanticism, as well as issues on the subject of melancholia and mourning in a literary perspective, but it's a rather interesting read to so I advise you check it out if you ever decide to read this book.

"He, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, born with no odor of his own on the most stinking spot in this world amid garbage, dung and putrefaction, raised without love, with no warmth of a human soul, surviving solely on impudence and the power of loathing--he had managed to make the world love him. And in that moment he experienced the greatest triumph of his life. And he was terrified. He was terrified because he could not enjoy one second of it." ~pp. 239-240

Anyone loves a great serial-killer story and this may be no Darkly Dreaming Dexter because it's not a hard-boiled thriller dealing with moral ambiguities as slick and sexy as the aforementioned series does, but Perfume nonetheless excels in the genre in its own sublime way. With a character like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who is more or less a blunt-force trauma-to-the-head, this book delivers a dark fable that's more often than not rather crude and petrifying in scope, yet its prose also becomes delicate to the touch, even when it's uncomfortably bizarre to see the events unfold before you. The gruelling climax and ending will simply astound and leave you cold for hours. This is a guaranteed contemporary classic that will deftly play with your imagination. 

"But Grenouille perceives that this is not enough because he cannot love himself. He knows that, even though he can appear as the most wonderful of individuals to everyone in the world with this scent, he cannot smell himself and, therefore, he cannot know who he truly is. With this lack of self-knowledge, the world and himself have no meaning. ~[x]
 
 
RECOMMENDED: 8/10

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A survivor must always have something to live for

"In Mexico, there are these fish that have colonized the freshwater caves along Sierra del Abra. They were lost. They found themselves living in complete darkness. But they didn’t die. Instead, they thrived. They adapted. They lost their pigmentation, their sight, eventually even their eyes. With survival, they became hideous. I’ve rarely thought about what I once was. But I wonder if a ray of light were to make it into the cave, would I be able to see it? Or feel it? Would I gravitate to its warmth? And if I did, would I become less hideous?"

~Reddington, The Blacklist

When I was fourteen years old, my father bought me a shabby copy of a paperback from a book sale written by an author named Harlan Coben. It's entitled Just One Look and it was about a housewife who discovers a weird photograph among her family pictures just after she had the film developed. She showed it to her husband who started acting strange until he just disappeared one night. What reeled me in wasn't really the mystery of this plot but the role and participation of its main antagonist, a twenty-six-year old contract killer named Eric Wu who grew up in North Korea and was trained as a master torturer of sorts, using a martial art that targets pressure points across the human body. He utilizes this technique to inflict pain all throughout the novel, and his chapters are just electrifying to see unfold. Wu was calculating, terrifyingly apathetic and often amusing in his contemplations. You get the sense that because of his upbringing and brutal encounters as a child who grew up in such an oppressive state, he has a unique way of examining things. He stands separate from the rest of the world, looking from the outside with a ready shrug of the shoulders while the rest of us form meaningful relationships, and fulfil our dreams and goals. For a man like Eric Wu, life is simply about survival; hurt or be hurt, kill or be killed.

It wasn't until I read him in his very first appearance in yet another Coben novel Tell No One that my fascination for this character grew and evolved into something that can only be described as a consuming obsession that lasted for a decade since high school. My connection with this fictional character also fostered my interest in North Korea as a country. In trying to understand the extensive damage of Eric Wu, I also started to take an active stance in comprehending said communist state. Researching North Korea was simply my secret hobby that only a few of my friends can understand. I was insatiably curious of the life and culture of that country, and so this is initially what made me buy this book the moment I laid eyes on it one day about eight months ago. I didn't know anything about it. I simply took it out of the shelf and read the back of the book. Just the fact that it's about North Korea was enough incentive but I put off reading this because my Batman comics diet got in the way. Now here I am at last. I just spent two weeks reading this novel and I felt numb all over right after finishing it. It had been very personal for me; the culmination of ten years worth of slightly abnormal fixation that brought me to the heart of this story.

I find that some books can just physically hurt you, and there is no way of knowing which ones will leave the most scars. I am sure even a hundred pages in last week that this book will leave me a gaping wound that will take a while to heal.

"People do things to survive, and then after they survive, they can't live with what they have done."

~page 68


I recently just acquired a taste for dystopian stories which was why most of the science fiction books I've read since Brave New World four years ago focus on that, and it's funny that something a lot of us seek and partake so eagerly in fiction can and actually do exist in the real world. North Korea is the nightmarish dystopia come to life, based from several accounts of citizens who have defected, and the experiences of tourists who were brave enough to navigate it. Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son is something I can consider a fine work of imaginative fiction because it aimed to capture and define the essence of what it must be like to live in a communist state that denies its constituents a sense of identity and individuality; where propaganda is as rampant as it is a basic component of the daily lives of its people.

To live in North Korea must be like breathing in a place where a man who fancies himself a god among men rules a starving nation and can determine their fates based on whatever whim pleases him; the people are just dead leaves, crushed by the tyrant’s weight, and then swept away.

The Orphan Master's Son is a four-hundred-plus narrative that is divided into two parts. First, we have the protagonist Pak Jun Do and his biography, while the other is the confessions of Commander Ga, the supposedly rival political figure of the then-current Great Leader himself, Kim Jong-Il. The first part is akin to a coming-of-age story for Jun Do who was the son of the caretaker of the orphanage Long Tomorrows. Jun Do named the orphans after martyrs from the Japanese-Korean strife, and he himself picked the name "Pak Jun Do" because of its personal significance to him (which is somewhat of a foreshadowing too). Jun Do believed that his father is unable to show his love because of the loss of his mother whom he insisted was a singer spirited away to Pyongyang because of her beauty and talent. This fantasy served as an ember of hope for him growing up, and he continued to cling to it quite fiercely even as an adult man. Its poignancy affected me greatly, most probably because Coben's Eric Wu also lost his mother (in the most horrendous way possible; she was tortured, executed then hanged in front of him--he was six years old). It's also a notable pattern for Jun Do to seek women as if each one is just another reflection of a mother he never had. This will consistently play out for the rest of the novel.

By the second part, a new character becomes the second narrator who relays certain key events in his perspective. He remained unnamed throughout the book and all that we really knew about him was that he was a dedicated worker; an interrogator who wishes to write biographies about the people who were captured and detained once they were considered as traitors or dissidents to the Kim regime. He strongly believed that what matters in the end when all is said and done would be the stories of individuals who will disappear and be long forgotten. In North Korea, people are expenditures whose relevance is always temporary, if not non-existent. This unnamed narrator acknowledges that which was why he develops an attachment to Commander Ga whose biography he desperately wants to write.

"Little by little, you relinquished everything, starting with your tomorrows and all that might be. Next went your past, and suddenly it was inconceivable that you once used a spoon or a toilet. Before you relinquish yourself, you let go of all the others, each person you'd once known. They became ideas and then notions and then impressions, and then they were as ghostly as projections against a prison infirmary."

~page 369

Adam Johnson creates an ugly and harrowing yet memorable and moving portrait of what it must be like for North Korean families who live their lives in such a harsh landscape where all its hues have gone dark. It's a place where there they have to acquire and use ration cards for food, alcohol and cigarettes. It's where sex is not necessarily something you have to pay for, so long as you have coupon books that can be stamped every time you were with a prostitute. Everything right from the basic needs is organized by your government, including vices and indulgences. In The Orphan Master's Son, we can read about Jun Do's personal encounters with failed defections, as well as participating in outright abductions of Japanese citizens who are unfortunate enough to stand near the ocean where the perpetrators can grab them and take them away forever.

This is a place of constant propaganda blaring on loudspeakers; where its movies are singularly centered around the portrayal of North Korea as both the victim of American corruption who rose as a champion against the filth of its capitalism. These films always have the actress Sun Moon as its only lead, and she is considered a national icon handpicked by the Great Leader himself, and she later on becomes the reason why Jun Do started to desire things beyond the confines of his cage.

North Korea is where prison and labor camps await families of anyone who tries to leave the country, and where widows must receive replacement husbands as assigned by the government. In North Korea, dogs are not household pets but rather illegal wild animals kept in zoos. These are the situations author Johnson chooses to depict and they become increasingly more significant later on in the story. The protagonist Pak Jun Do, in spite of the consuming darkness that shaped and distorted his life, possesses a light that can never be extinguished even when he was not aware of it himself at first. In spite of being programmed early on to accept the casual cruelty of his surroundings, if not directly implement it on others, Jun Do was still capable of compassion and insight which allowed him to develop a keen sense of curiosity and sense of justice for lives he unintentionally had to destroy to make it out alive. While most people in that environment have become passive of their impoverished state, Jun Do slowly begins to question the status quo as he searches for a freedom he had never known is something we all fundamentally deserve and strive for. With knowledge of the outside world naturally comes the desire to become a part of it after all.


"Intimate," he said. "I do not know this word."
"You know, close," Wanda replied, "When two people share everything, when there are no secrets between them." 
 ~page 156

After being rewarded for stopping a co-worker from defecting, Jun Do was sent to a Language school where he learned English. He began staying in a fishing vessel as a communications expert whose job function is to listen and record radio transmissions. A notable one belonged to a pair of American female athletes who dared themselves to row a boat across the world. He finds himself drawn to the one who rows at night and her audio journals of the trip which filled him with a sense of unnamed longing. In the ship, he develops a camaraderie with the Captain who was almost like a father figure to him, and the Second Mate who later on tries to defect. This fishing expedition part of the first installment has to be my most favorite arc of the book. It left me with a sense of hope and dread all at once because of how intense and gruelling the experiences of Jun Do and the crew are once they encountered a group of American soldiers. I feared for their lives, honestly, and found their resourcefulness during and after that event to be amusing as well as pitiful.

It was by this part of the story that we become more intimate with how deep and crippling the fear that North Koreans have towards their own government that they are willing to invent tales to evade the possibility of being arrested and tortured for treason.

My second favorite arc has to be when Jun Do was requested to come to the United States, specifically to Texas, as a civilian representative of the DPRK together with two other officials, and they met with a state senator, the federal agent that Jun Do only knew as Wanda, and the senator's Christian wife. This is where Jun Do was able to interact with foreigners (specifically Wanda) and their cultural differences are immediately vast, where both of them are unknowable to each other. Wanda asked him if he ever felt free and Jun Do has a different concept and definition for what 'freedom' is in his country, as well as what love and beauty is for someone who grew up in a place seemingly bereft of such things. Jun Do was also able to make a brief connection with the Senator's wife who was touched by Jun Do's story concerning the actress Sun Moon whom he has learned to pretend to be his wife while he was at sea. Her face had been tattooed to his chest because the Captain insisted on it for the sake of maintaining his cover as part of their crew.

Pak Jun Do never ceases to be such an engrossing voice of the narrative. Reading him becoming aware of his own autonomy and personal desires has evoked powerful emotions from me, considering I've always been fairly individualistic myself. To live a life not knowing real independence or not having the ability to make my own choices is something so frightening to me in a visceral level which is probably why this novel has gripped me with possessive claws and refused to let me go every time I turned a page. It's a rather exhilarating experience!

"He had been raised in an environment that stressed the power of men and the subordination of women, but Eric Wu had always found it to be more hope than truth. Women were harder. They were more unpredictable. They handled physical pain better--he knew this from personal experience. When it came to protecting their loved ones, they were far more ruthless. Men would sacrifice themselves out of machismo or stupidity or the blind belief that they would be victorious. Women would sacrifice themselves without self-deception."

 ~Just One Look, Harlan Coben


The women in Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son are the central figures and often catalysts that inspired Pak Jun Do to seek liberation, autonomy and intimacy. From the fantasy of his mother whom he never met, Jun Do would find himself feeling for each suffering woman he became acquainted with throughout the book. We have the Second Mate's wife, a great beauty who wanted to travel to Pyongyang to be an actress, hoping she has a shot of a better life by starring in movies. There's the federal agent Wanda who was willing to listen and encourage Jun Do to form his opinions and she unknowingly helps him figure out that there are certain liberties he wants to achieve by living as a person who can make his own choices outside of government control. There's also the Senator's wife who expresses her sadness over the fact that Jun Do has no religion or spirituality to keep him afloat, and tries to give him a gift he can bring home to his wife Sun Moon, his pretend-spouse.

To a lesser extent, we also have the American female athlete who rowed at night. She was then detained by North Korean coast guards and was offered as a special prisoner to Kim Jong-Il. Jun Do also becomes friends with a woman named Mongnan in a labor camp at the mines and she was rumoured to be a former university professor who, along some of her students in class, publicly protested the injustices of the Kim government.

Of all this women, the one who stands apart is the deceptively delicate Sun Moon who is favored personally by the Great Leader so he made her the sole star of all his propaganda movies. She was the treasure of the big screen, and the roles she played as an actress have endeared her to the nation and its citizens. The rest of the second part of the book is devoted to the dynamics and gradual relationship between Jun Do and Sun Moon, and his plans to help her and her children defect from North Korea. Theirs is not a story of easy romance; one might argue it was born out of coincidence and convenience, and they may not be wrong. But their relationship can't also be simplified that harshly because it was through Jun Do that Sun Moon finally found the courage and means to get out of the unhealthy arrangement she has with the Great Leader, while she in return taught Jun Do the meaning of sacrifice and love, as well the gift of song and completeness.

"Oh, I know what you are. You know what that is? You're a survivor with nothing to live for. Wouldn't you rather die for something you cared about?"

 ~page 115

Overall, reading The Orphan Master's Son has to be the most intimate way I have ever experienced a work of fiction. It was tantalizing and enduring in vision and message. I think my fixation for North Korea found a more grounded purpose because of what this novel personally symbolized for me.

Though it's punishingly intricate to read, it was also supremely masterful in every way, reeling me in completely until I felt as though I am also a captive myself. This novel is a daring feat of imagination that examines and challenges our own convictions and beliefs about what it truly means to be free by showing us what oppression, hunger and poverty feels and tastes like. We often neglect and take for granted how blessed we are for the many options and opportunities we have in our lives every day, and The Orphan Master's Son is the kind of book that reaffirms exactly that, if not shame us with our own ignorance, self-entitlement and privilege.


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RECOMMENDED: 10/10