Review: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Like everyone else, I read through the surge in articles after Kim Jong Il’s death to learn more about his cult of personality with morbid fascination. The North Korean propaganda machine perpetuates such myths as Kim Jong Il being a demi-god able to control the weather with his mood, or North Korea being the envy of the world for its prosperity and efficiency. It does not mention North Korea’s grotesque human rights violations or painfully tight media or how these deficiencies cast it in a terrible light to the rest of the world (naturally). What makes this novel difficult is that the reader cannot evaluate what is culturally accurate and what is creative license due to the dearth of information on daily life in North Korea. The best writers fit fictional events seamlessly into actual locations, but North Korea is not an unremarkable backdrop—it steals the scene as much as any character. Adam Johnson, an American associate professor at Stanford, visited North Korea in 2007 (an interview about this visit’s impact on the novel can be found here).

The title character, Jun Do, is an average citizen who has been given an orphan’s name (orphans are named for Korean martyrs) which sets him apart from others even though he’s not technically an orphan. After helping his father run an orphanage, he participates in the kidnappings of Japanese citizens and later spends time aboard a fishing boat to eavesdrop on radio transmissions. He floats from one trade to the next, depending on where he is thought to be most useful. He has no agency in the direction of his life. So much in this militaristic society screams for a comparison to 1984: constant updates from the government to warn of sneak attacks, strict food rations, general deprivation, citizens ratting each other out for trivial offenses, etc. Kim Jong Il’s face is as ever present as that of Big Brother. However, while the most eerie moment of 1984 is when Winston realizes that Big Brother really is watching, the most ominous moment of The Orphan Master’s Son is when Jun Do is taken somewhere out of sight of Kim Jong Il’s national portrait:

Never in his life had he been in a room without portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il above the door. Not in the lowliest orphanage, not in the oldest train car, not even in the burned-out shitter of the Junma. Never had he been in a place that did not merit the gaze of the Dear and Great Leaders’ constant concern. The place he was in, he knew now, was below mattering—it didn’t even exist. (171)

The first half of the novel is told through a close narration of Pak Jun Do’s life and ends with his imprisonment (this is not so enormous a spoiler as it sounds, don’t worry). After he is in prison, the story vaults forward one year and is then told from a variety of perspectives all playing catch-up with one another. This is jarring at first, but soon becomes clear. The neutral voice of the narrator continues to relay bits and pieces of the previous year while an interrogator tells, in his own voice, his story of trying to convince a man to confess to these same events. While the end of the story (the man’s imprisonment) is clear, the events to that point remain unpredictable to the last. The third voice is the false voice of the broadcaster who is relaying the previous year to the nation as the “greatest” North Korean story. The use of propaganda is sharp here since it contrasts with events as they unfold. The propaganda is darkly humorous, but the urge to laugh at the clever writing is stifled by the idea that there could be a place in the world receiving such lies in place of information. Whenever I thought Johnson had gone too far with his propaganda, I remembered reports that Kim Jong Il hit 11 holes-in-one during his first golf outing (verified by his personal guards) and that his birth was marked by the appearance of a new star in the heavens.

From Johnson’s interview:

I’ll tell you one of the most sinister, surreal moments, was when I went—they took me to the Korean history museum, and the first exhibit was kind of a plexi-glass box, and in it was what they claimed was a skull fragment. It looked very old, like a fossil. And they said this skull fragment was found on the shores of the Taedong River, right there in Pyongyang, and that it was 4.25 million years old, and they had a diorama there about how humanity had begun in North Korea—specifically in Pyongyang—and how the human diaspora had spread out of Korea, across Asia into Europe, and finally settling in Africa and America.

No wonder North Koreans are only allowed to speak with foreigners after they’ve received special training.

Why you should read this book: It goes into its ending 1,000 miles an hour without falling flat. As the story progresses and takes on new dimensions, it becomes larger and more ambitious—even pulling in Kim Jong Il as a character—until it is so large that it is hard to imagine how it can end without fizzling. The end is not plausible, but one of the themes of this book is that story and perception are more important than fact. Each character is pushed to a breaking point and as the writing becomes more frenetic and ridiculous, the tension mounts exponentially. The play between the different narrative voices is brilliant, allowing the characters and events to be more fleshed out than they would otherwise be. I stayed up until 3:30 in the morning (on a work night) to finish reading and did not regret the late hour when I turned the last page.

One final note: I mentioned that one of the narrators was an interrogator in a prison. The prison scenes in this book are harsh and very difficult to read. Johnson does not shy from gory details, but he doesn’t revel in them either. He gives you just enough to make it clear what is happening, then steps away. It is graphic enough that I felt woozy in places, but Johnson is more concerned with the momentum and direction of his story, the motivations of his characters, than dwelling in these scenes longer than absolutely necessary.

Overall: 4.8 (out of 5.0) This book is worth reading.

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