The surest evidence that the woman in the photo was Jun Do’s mother was the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment. It could only mean that in Jun Do’s face, the Orphan Master saw the woman in the picture, a daily reminder of the eternal hurt he felt from losing her. Only a father in that kind of pain could take a boy’s shoes in winter. Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel. - Adam Johnson, The Orphan Master's Son
The Orphan Master’s Son is like no other novel I know. It has been compared to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, but the author has not created a future dystopia: the world of this fictional work is a country that really exists in our own time.
“How much did you know about North Korea before reading The Orphan Master’s Son?” asks the first question in the “Questions and Topics for Discussion” section following the novel’s end. My answer would be “Very little.” That Communist North Korea lost its battle for reunification with South Korea and that its people live under a repressive regime. Little more, except that recently I saw a photograph of a newly opened, antiseptic-looking North Korean bookstore (check it out in this issue of “Shelf Awareness”), with very little offered for sale on its shelves other than various editions of the Collected Works of Kim Jong Il and a paltry handful of translated foreign titles.
The book hadn’t been on my agenda or radar, but it was recommended to me by a friend whose opinion on books I trust. Looking at the last few titles on my “Books Read” list, I saw it was also time for a modern novel, so home with me went the book.
Johnson’s tale, enriched by research into the actual country, opens with two pages of imagined propaganda from the North Korean government, arriving by loudspeaker in every home. Various unrelated statements are made and rumors denied. “What are you going to believe, citizens?” the loudspeaker asks. “Rumors and lies, or your very own eyes?” Immediately I wondered what I was going to believe in this story, where rumors and lies play such an important part and the fiction imagined is based on facts. Knowing full well that I was reading a novel, I quickly gave myself over to belief in Johnson's convincing fictional world.
The protagonist, Jun Do, who grew up in the orphanage administered by his father, was not technically an orphan, but like the other boys he was given an orphan’s name, a name that also echoes for American readers the name John Doe, and he is the North Korean Everyman. He does what he must to survive, whether that means sending other orphans to work in fatally toxic environments, enduring combat duty in completely dark tunnels under the DMZ, or participating in kidnapping expeditions to Japanese shores. “Then the kidnappings ended, as suddenly as they’d begin,” and Jun do is sent to school to learn English. Next he is assigned to intercept and translate American radio transmissions from a North Korean fishing vessel.
Out at sea the young man’s life begins to open up for the first time. He has a taste of freedom in the water and sky surrounding him and gradually learns about family from the captain and crew, while in the dark night, he is given glimpses of another world in the person of the Girl Rower and the manned space station whose location eludes him for so long. Jun Do cannot plan his future, nor can he predict a single one of his “long tomorrows.” He can only hope to keep himself and his friends the fishing crew and captain safe, as each astonishing, improbable turn of events tests his ability to lie convincingly and to suffer torture without recanting his false testimony.
Improbable, yes. How likely is it that just this particular motherless not-an-orphan, also a kidnapper, tunnel soldier, and radio operator, would be chosen as the official translator on a mission to Abilene, Texas, for some “talks before the talks,” an informal meeting with an American senator who will later visit North Korea to make a serious exchange? In an interview at the end of the book, the author addresses the question of what is “real” and what is “invented” in his novel.
If literature is a fiction that tells a deeper truth, I feel my book is a very accurate portrayal of how the tenets of totalitarianism eat away at the things that make us human: freedom, art, choice, identity, expression, love. And because few things about North Korea are verifiable ... this seems to be a realm in which the imaginative reach of literary fiction is our best tool to discover the human dimension of such an elusive a society. But I know what you’re asking.... I have a rationale for every artistic decision I made in the book, but suffice it to say that most of the shocking aspects in my book are sourced from the real world.... What’s fiction is that one person might serve in all these capacities, as my character Jun Do does. But in this case I valued the larger portrait of North Korean society over the plausibility that one person would have such a range of positions.
Stop now and take a deep breath before you read what he says next.
I felt I actually had to tone down much of the real darkness of North Korea, as in the kwan li so gulags, the reports of which were so harrowing—forced abortions, amputations, communal executions—that I invented the blood harvesting as a less savage stand-in, one that was simple and visceral, for the ways that the Kim regime stole every drop of life from citizens it had sentenced to an eternity of slave labor.
To give any kind of adequate review of this book, I would have to discuss Jun Do’s transformation into General Ga and his love affair with the film actress Sun Moon (General Ga’s wife), and I would have to mention her children, too, and his relationship with them. I would also have to discuss the nameless figure of the interrogator, a man who works only at night, whose own parents fear him, who takes pride in his team being different from, more “scientific” than, the Pubyok torturers. What will become of them all? The author says in his interview, “The people there are just as human as we are, driven by the same needs and motivations.” Some of Johnson’s characters become harder as the story unfolds, while in others their humanity cannot help reaching for the light.
But all I really want to do is urge you to read this heartbreaking, horrifying, mesmerizing, and beautifully written, book. Deserving recipient of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, The Orphan Master's Son has prompted different people to ask: Is it magical realism? A political thriller? Love story and/or a tragedy? Coming-of-age tale? I say that the best of novels, whatever labels critics attach to them, transcend genre boundaries, and Johnson has gone transcendence one better: his novel blends and unites genre categories, and transcends them all.
Reading the first few pages, I wondered if I would be able to “get into” this book; now I think that no one could read very far into it without becoming obsessed by the characters and compelled to continue the voyage. If I were to put together a “Top 100 Novels of My Lifetime,” this would surely be on the list.
Returning the Dear Leader’s gaze, Ga felt no fear looking into the eyes of the man who would get the last word. In fact, Ga was oddly carefree. I’d have felt this my whole life, Ga thought, if you had never existed.
Tragic, yes, but not a tragedy. The central character is not a great man brought low by a tragic flaw but an Everyman who discovers his purpose and finds strength and resolution to fulfill it.