The Orphan Master’s Son

Unknown The Orphan Master’s Son
Adam Johnson
© 2012

Imagine a land ruled by a vicious, crazy leader.  This is a country where ignorance is prized.  The truth is twisted and mangled, and people know better than to question it:

“Where we are from [. . . ] stories are factual.  If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro.  And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing piano.  For us, the story is more important than the person.  If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”

Doubt or disloyalty of any kind is a death sentence:

[T]hey lived in a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them.  He considered sharing how there was only one penalty, the ultimate one, for questioning reality, how a citizen could fall into great jeopardy for simply noticing that realities changed.

This is North Korea in the not-so-distant past, and it is the backdrop of The Orphan Master’s Son, the life story of Pak Jun Do (an intentional homonym of “John Doe”).

Jun Do’s mother disappeared (she was likely kidnapped and taken to Pyongyang, where beautiful women are made hostesses or wives or playthings to the powerful) when he was young.  So, he grows up at an orphanage, Long Tomorrows, where his father serves as orphan master.  Even though he is not technically an orphan, he is treated as one, scorned and forced to do the lowest jobs.

The first part of the book, “The Biography of Jun Do” details his travails: as a kid, filling sandbags, shoveling out boxcars at the railyard, breaking sheets of ice at the docks; as a tunnel soldier, trained in the art of “zero-light combat”; as a kidnapper, who steals people at the behest of the “Great Leader” (Kim Jong Il); and, after being sent to English-language school (taught by a kidnapped English speaker), as a listening officer on a fishing ship.

His life is one of extreme loyalty.  He is taught that he must follow directives, act loyally, and heed the Great Leader.  And he does just that, even when he is forced to do terrible things.

Then, because of his English-language skills, Jun Do is sent on a mission to Texas.  The mission is a failure, and when the team returns, Jun Do is banished to a prison mine.  It is in prison that Jun Do decides to alter his reality.  He assumes the identity of Commander Ga.  The vicious Commander Ga is one of Kim Jong Il’s rivals, the minister of prison mines, the winner of the Golden Belt in taekwondo, a closeted homosexual who rapes hundreds of men, and husband to the beautiful actress Sun Moon.  Even before he has seen any of her movies, Jun Do is obsessed and in love with Sun Moon.

The second part of the book, “The Confessions of Commander Ga” follows Jun Do after he has become Commander Ga.  As a reader, you learn what has happened to land “Commander Ga” back in prison through three separate, intertwining narratives telling the same story from vastly different perspectives: 1) loudspeaker propaganda reports telling the “Best North Korean Story” as a serial tale, 2) the first-person narrative of a government interrogator who questions Commander Ga, and 3) a third-person narrative detailing what actually happened.

Rating: 2.5/5  📢

Critics have gone crazy over this book.  In her review in The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani proclaimed, “In  making his hero, and the nightmare he lives through, come so thoroughly alive, Mr. Johnson has written a daring and remarkable novel, a novel that not only opens a frightening window on the mysterious kingdom of North Korea, but one that also excavates the very meaning of love and sacrifice.”  David Ignatius said in The Washington Post, “I haven’t liked a new novel this much in years.”  The Wall Street Journal called it “remarkable.”  The San Francisco Chronicle described it as “a harrowing, clever, incomparable riff on life in Kim Jon Il’s North Korea.”  And, to top it all off, last year, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

If you know someone who has read it, I’d be willing to bet they echo these sentiments.  This is the kind of book that people bring up at ostentatious dinner parties in an attempt to make themselves appear intelligent and well-read.  They plodded through the 450 dense pages about life in horrible and oppressive North Korea . . . and they want you to know it.

I can hear it now: “Have you read The Orphan Master’s Son?  No?  Oh, you must!  It’s a spellbinding tale blahblahblah realistic depiction of North Korea blahblahblah atrocities blahblahblah propaganda and fear mongering blahblahblah frightening glimpse into life under Kim Jong Il’s totalitarian regime blahblahblah.”

The book lends itself to those kinds of comments.  It is well written—in a dense, “literary” way.  It is obviously well researched (Johnson spent seven years writing and researching the novel and actually visited North Korea).  The propaganda tales over the loudspeakers are creative and funny. And the setting is obviously fascinating (and timely—the book was released about a month after Kim Jong Il died).  North Korea with its prison camps and bizarre, jump-suited Kim Jong Il is captivating.

Unfortunately, the book is not particularly enjoyable to read (and not because it’s uncomfortable or vicious or whatever; I can handle that).  This book has been described as a political thriller, but it is not nearly thrilling enough to fit that description.  There are about twenty-five pages of interesting action; the rest is non-chronological build-up.

Johnson himself has called it a “trauma narrative.”  Frankly, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a less appealing genre, but it fits the bill.  It’s 450 pages of a guy’s tragic life story.  It’s clunky and meandering and long and contains several unnecessary tangents.  It’s tough to be both boring and disgusting simultaneously, but this book manages it on more than one occasion.  This reads more like dry, boring non-fiction than good, gripping fiction.

In this case, a good setting + good writing  a good book.

Who should read it: People who are fascinated by North Korea and Kim Jong Il (who isn’t?!) and are willing to slog through dense, sometimes tedious writing to learn more about what they may be like.  

Book club aside: Had this not been chosen by my book club, I wouldn’t have read it.  I was the lone person (among nine) at the book club who did not love the book.  Everyone else raved about it, finding the setting particularly arresting and intriguing (no argument here).  So, take that for what it’s worth.

3 thoughts on “The Orphan Master’s Son

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