Who is the little man in the elevator shoes?
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Johnson explores these boundaries in a novel that recounts the lives of a small group of people living under the regime of Kim Jong-il, the father of Un. A challenging read, the book has four narrative voices, moves back and forth in time and features two characters with the same name. Johnson went to North Korea as part of his extensive research. He could get permission for only a one-week stay, during which he was attended 24/7 by minders who controlled and limited his access. What he did notice: no mail service, no fire trucks and, strangely, no wheelchairs. How are disabled people cared for, or aren’t they?
The author said that the most bizarre elements of his novel aren’t the things he invented; they exist in North Korea. People don’t go to prison; they go to labor camps. Stupid Americans, the Korean leaders say. Why put people in prison and feed them when they do nothing in return? Why not work them nearly to death and then drain their blood for transfusions? Criminal acts include speaking to a foreigner or not hanging a picture of the Dear Leader over one’s doorway, not paying attention to the constant propaganda piped out to the populace over loudspeakers.
Starving is not considered justification for taking a fish from a pond or a chestnut from a tree. People are routinely swept off the streets and sent to the countryside to work in the fields. In the book, all old workers are sent to a “beach resort” for retirement, although no one ever hears from them again.
In the novel, an opera singer is kidnapped from her home in Japan and brought to Kim Jong-il so that he might hear her sing any time. In real life, a South Korean movie director was kidnapped to the north to make films for the Supreme Leader. He never returned, nor did any of the thousands of Japanese who were kidnapped and brought to North Korea. The truth, leaked by defectors, makes the fictional account seem tame by comparison.