It is hard to review this book without trying to establish some link with the real world.
Because as soon as one opens the book, reality leaves the room. Saying that this book is purely about storytelling is a serious understatement. The main character survives in a kafkian world because he is a master storyteller. He becomes his characters, one after the next.
It is never clear if Adam Johnson’s intention is to criticize a realistic view of North Korea of if he just wants to take advantage of an already insane society by taking it to a higher level of paranoia. In any case his ability to turn apparently absurd events into absorbing tales is outstanding.
It is true that one can recognize shades of 1984, Kafka and other influences in this book, but the bottom line is that it creates a weird atmosphere. And the main reason is that people in Johnson’s imaginary world behave according to seriosly distorted patterns. Family, friendship and sex are subordinated to the whims of one individual, not even to an ideology.
The book is highly enjoyable, the aftertaste is difficult to describe.