Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

Jun Do, the protagonist of Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son, grows up in an orphanage, a shameful heritage in North Korea. Despite being (or thinking he is--one cannot be sure) the son of the institution's director, Jun Do is not spared the hard labor that the orphans must do. And, when he reaches maturity, he is forced into low-level jobs: he is a tunnel fighter and is then "promoted" to being first a kidnapper who snatches Japanese people and takes them back to North Korea and then a "listener" who accompanies a fishing boat to listen to enemy (i.e., U.S.) radio transmissions. When things go bad on the boat, Jun Do is forced to endure a shark attack so that a false story of heroism can be constructed to cover up what really happened. As the hero, Jun Do is taken on a secret mission to the United States; this mission, too, goes poorly. Much is grim (and surreal) in this first section of the book, told entirely in the third person from Jun Do's perspective, but things get much worse, as Jun Do has been sent to a prison camp at the end of this section.

In the second part of the book, Jun Do is being interrogated. He has not been assigned to the "torture first" team but to a group that claims to be writing biographies of North Korean citizens, using subtler forms of coercion until greater force is required. This section of the book has three narrators. Jun Do, who tells of his time in the prison camp, as well as his escape and subsequent impersonation of the powerful Commander Ga, whose wife (a famous actress Sun Moon) and children have disappeared. Kim Jong-Il emerges as a character in Jun Do's story. The second narrator is the interrogator who is attempting to write the biography of Jun Do/Commander Ga; his first-person narration provides not only a description of his work and why he thinks it is important, but a description of his own severely circumscribed life. The final narrator is the voice of the loudspeaker, heard everywhere in North Korea; in the hands of propagandists, Jun Do and Sun Moon's story becomes a serialized fable.

While Kim Jong-Il is rendered as a comical figure, the lives of North Korean people are certainly not funny; indeed, the continual betrayals and cruelties that the government visits on its people make reading difficult. Yet Jun Do develops into a compelling character--as does his interrogator--and their intertwined fates keep you reading.

Johnson relied on information from defectors, scholarship on North Korea, and a brief and highly managed visit to the country. Obviously, however, he relied on his prodigious imagination. Thus, one cannot really assess the degree to which his depiction resembles reality, a fact that troubles me somewhat. I am quite sure that, in time, Johnson's descriptions will become reality in my mind. This may not be fair to the real North Korea, but it is a tribute to the author's construction of a grotesque but memorable world.

Favorite passage:
The hallway was lined with photographs of the Senator's family, always smiling. To move toward the kitchen was like going back in time: the graduation photos becoming sports photos, and then there were scouting clubs, pigtails, birthday parties. And finally there were pictures of babies.   Was this what a family was? How it grew? Straight as the children's teeth. Sure, there was an arm in a sling, and over time, the grandparents disappeared from the photos. The occasions changed, as did the dogs. But this was a family, start to finish, without wars or famines or political prisons. Without a stranger coming to town to drown your daughter.

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