The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 so I expected it to be at least great. I was not disappointed. My reason for reading it was selfish; it is preparation reading for a writer-reader conference in Bali during the last week of October 2016. I will attend at least one meeting with an author who writes about North Korea and I would like to be informed with enough background information to ask questions. This book, although a work of fiction, presents some mind-boggling truths about the Hermit Kingdom. There is a reader’s guide at the end of the book as well as an interview with the author. Johnson informs the reader about his sources of information and inspiration. That is a good thing because from the beginning of the book information the reader receives defies belief.
Some readers may be aware of countries that broadcast information loudly and frequently throughout the day by means of public loudspeakers. The truth as the government sees it is impossible to avoid, paying attention is demanded of the citizenry and critical analysis or questioning of facts presented is strongly discouraged and may be life threatening. A visitor from a Western nation after being exposed to this system would never criticize elevator music again. In this novel, we look at North Korea. I have seen the same system in China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. North Koreas efforts as presented in this book are unique in the extremes reached that defy belief.
Immediately after the table of contents, before we are introduced to our hero and protagonist Jun Do, we get a chance to read one of these broadcasts. According to Johnson, many of these ridiculous claims typically broadcast as news were lifted from actual news articles published in a popular North Korean newspaper. A few examples:
While the Dear Leader lectured to the dredge operators, many doves were seen to spontaneously flock above him, hovering to provide our Reverend General some much needed shade on a hot day. (p.3)
The shark has an ancient camaraderie with the Korean people. In the year 1592, did sharks not offer fish from their own mouths to help sustain Admiral Yi’s sailors during the siege of Okpo Harbor? Our national actress Sun Moon capsized in Inchon Bay while trying to prevent the American sneak attack (Korean War). It was a scary moment for all of us as the sharks began to circle her, helpless amid the waves. But did the sharks not recognize Sun Moon’s Korean modesty? Did they not smell the hot blood of her patriotism and lift her upon their fins to carry her safely to shore, where she could join the raging battle to repel the imperialist invaders? (p 5-6)
Our public information narrator in (1) above is referring to Kim Jong-il but the same could be (and probably is) said about the current leader, Kim Jong-un. In (2) above, reference is made to Sun Moon who will have an important part in this story as she is the love interest of Jun Do. She is possibly the love interest of the entire Korean male population much the same as American males were in love with Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, and on and on in the fantasy world. But Jun Do will never meet Sun Moon in his Jun Do persona. He will meet her as Commander Ga and how that comes about is as fascinating in its fictional creation as is the information we learn about North Korea.
Jun Do might be an orphan. We first meet him as a child in an orphanage. But Jun Do will never accept the label “orphan.” He presents his rationale of why he is not an orphan; the orphan master of the orphanage “Long Tomorrows” would never give him so much responsibility for and over other orphans if he were not, in fact, the son of the orphan master. But Jun Do also acknowledges that what is true in reality may conflict with the reality as prescribed by the government. And the Dear Leader, whether Kim il-Sung, Kim Jong-il, or Kim Jong-un is never wrong.
During a famine, labeled by the government as “The Arduous March”, the orphan master gave into the reality of no food and no way to survive other than distributing the orphans to other places, especially places with a government connection. Jun Do, at 14, went to the Army and became a tunnel rat. He learned skills enabling him to fight and survive in total darkness. He worked in tunnels that crossed borders where members of Jun Do’s team would surface to steal goods that could not be found in North Korea. Eight years later he was discovered by a man who would turn him into a kidnapper and a thief of other goods from Japan. During this job, he would learn seafaring skills. Jun Do also attracted the attention of intelligence officials. They noted that during his kidnapping adventures, he developed an interest in learning Japanese. Just as with the label “Orphan,” Jun Do refused to accept the label “Spy.” Again the government reality prevailed and while on a fishing boat Jun Do was tasked to listen for broadcasts from US and South Korean vessels. After an unfortunate incident with a US Navy ship and a South Korean officer, Jun Do was rewarded as a hero. As a form of reward, he was sent to the US as part of a diplomatic initiative.
Returning from the US, the team was deemed corrupted by western values. They had also failed to return with an item desired by the Dear Leader. The entire team was disciplined. Jun Do lost his hero status and was sent to the mines as punishment. Jun Do disappeared and was not heard from again.
Commander Ga was the Minister of Mines. He had to make frequent inspections of mines in a quest for certain rocks that made certain measuring meters click at a high rate of speed. The trips were lengthy and wife Sun Moon always expectantly awaited his return. Not with joy and love, but with fear, hate, and disgust. When he returned from his latest trip, she did not greet him with joy and love, but the fear, hate, and disgust were gone. It was as if he were a different man. And the love story begins. This is also where we meet our third narrator, an interrogator. A reader who also has familiarity with interrogation will discover a lot of points of comparison with western interrogation methods.
The improbability and coincidences in the fictional story are as amazing as the unreality that is depicted as North Korea. They are at the same level and are why the book works so well. There are many stories told that are woven together as skillfully as the quilt of the Senator’s wife (told during Jun Do’s visit to Texas).
This is a remarkable book told by an author with limited access to a closed society. There is a narcissistic cult leader, a totalitarian government, and a repressed people (physically) who have to deal with an inherent evolution (mentally). How they succeed and fail in their struggles invites our emotional attachment and reflection. This is a great book not to be read quickly.