This novel is about the adventures and misadventures of Pak Jun Do, a North Korean, who is raised in the `Long Tomorrows' orphanage his father is director of. Jun Do never knew his mother - we are told that she is a singer of great beauty who was shipped to Pyongyang. His name, like those of the other orphans, is given to him from the list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution. He is, simultaneously, everyone and no-one. Jun Do even sounds like John Doe.
After the orphanage is devastated, Jun Do is sent to the military where first he undertakes training in zero-light combat in the tunnels under the demilitarized zone, and then on an undercover mission which involves kidnapping Japanese from the beaches. And then, Jun Do is sent to language school to learn English, which gets him assigned to a boat to transcribe radio intercepts. Once back on land, he is assigned to an intelligence team travelling to Texas where he meets a Senator and his wife.
`There's no way around it: to get a new life, you've got to trade in your old one.'
After returning from Texas, Jun Do ends up in a labour camp where he takes over the life and identity of a North Korean military hero, Commander Ga. In this half of the novel, the depiction of North Korea may exceed a reader's wildest imaginings. `The Dear Leader' Kim Jong-il, who died shortly before this book was published, is Commander Ga's rival for the affections of Commander Ga's wife, an actress named Sun Moon.
It's complicated, and convoluted and doesn't always make sense. It's jarring at times to switch from the omniscient narrator who tells the `real' story, to the ever-present loudspeakers that tell the version of the story the government wants its citizens to hear and then, in the second half of the novel, to include the interrogator whose responsibility is to make sure that every citizen's story is told. In the end, after most of the pieces fall into place, Pak Jun Do does really become a hero - but not an official North Korean one. I'm ambivalent about setting a dystopian novel in a country where fiction can easily be read as fact but, in the end, it's that blurring of possibility that makes this novel such a powerful read. It's satirical and sad, as well as amusing and unsettling.
`What are you going to believe, citizens? Rumours and lies, or your very own eyes?'