This Year’s Best North Korean Story
I was introduced to The Orphan Master’s Son about eighteen months ago, when Adam Johnson came to read as part of the 30th anniversary celebration of McNeese State University’s MFA program. I was a month away from graduating, and that morning had handed in the final, defended, and signed copy of my thesis. My former advisor, Neil Connelly, had returned for the festivities, and was asking a poet friend and me about our theses. We talked about the rewarding process of working as well as the challenges and frustrations, but overall we were very happy with how far we had come as writers in three years. We were feeling pretty good about ourselves.
Then Adam Johnson read selections from The Orphan Master’s Son.
The novel is devastatingly brilliant. It will make whatever you just read or wrote seem like an amateur exercise. It does what good fiction is supposed to do – it moves the heart in a sincere way without resorting to sentimentality, while also forcing the mind to ponder significant questions about what it means to be human.
I did not read The Orphan Master’s Son until this summer, partly because of an interstate move, a new job, and other commitments, but partly because I did not have the courage to face how good it was going to be. I was right about the latter point: the story told commands the reader and consumes attention, so it is best to pursue when significant responsibility is not in your hands.
The novel, set in the North Korea of Kim Jong-Il, is presented in two parts. The first, “The Biography of Jun Do,” follows the titular character in linear third person. The second section is divided among three narrators, each telling portions of “The Confessions of Commander Ga.” One is in standard third person. A state-sanctioned version of the story is presented through the loudspeakers that are installed in all buildings throughout Pyongyang. The third perspective is the first-person tale of a nameless interrogator in Division 42, a special secret police unit designed to root out the disloyal.
The experience of reading The Orphan Master’s Son mirrors the structure of the book. Jun Do’s search for identity is a journey with a seemingly clear trajectory. I read the first half in just a few days; the story pulled me along rapidly and easily, powered by desire to discover what happens next. I was quickly invested in the character of Jun Do, even though he is not an upstanding or wholly sympathetic person. The ending of the first section sincerely broke my heart; I cannot recall another novel moving me to be both stunned by the surprise of the conclusion or the feeling of loss it left behind. I did not start the second half for a few days because I was too exhausted from the story of Jun Do.
The second half, split among three narrators, reflects the fragmented nature of the story being told and the characters involved. The characters here are shaken from what they thought they knew and forced to reassemble their identities. Reading this half took much longer. If there is one criticism of the novel, it would be that the first section so emotionally drains the reader that it is difficult to fully engage the demands of the second part. Reading the novel reminded me of the realization I had when first listening to Adam Johnson read eighteen months ago: I would gladly surrender my best work in order to produce the flaws of The Orphan Master’s Son.
The human urge to be known and remembered fills the lives of the characters in the novel. Sailors tattoo the faces of their wives on their chest. The condemned – often entire families – carve their names and initials into the benches of the trucks transporting them to prison mines from which they likely will never return. One prisoner photographs each convict when they enter the prison, and pairs that photo with one of them when they die. The need to remember is strong in a world where identity is fluid.
The idea of identity is at the core of the novel, but the world in which Jun Do and Commander Ga inhabit is one where it is pliable and transferrable. If the Dear Leader or his agents decide that you are to become someone new, then you become someone new. The idea of “replacement person” – a government assigned substitute for a lost family member – is not unusual to the people of the DPRK. A person does not decide his or her identity; it is decided by bureaucrats – or Kim Jong-Il himself – and can be changed as quickly as a set of clothes. The orphan of the title does not know his real name. The interrogator has no name revealed. The actress Sun Moon has her name selected by the Dear Leader. Individuals are malleable, waiting to be shaped into what the government tells them they are.
Shifts in identity are part of the jarring nature of The Orphan Master’s Son. The most difficult aspect of the book is comprehending that while the story arc is fictional, the setting and many of its occurrences are all too real. The brutality of the Kim Jong-Il regime and the conditions endured by the people of the DPRK left me wondering if this world could be real. As the novel progressed I stopped wondering if they were and began hoping that were not. But hope does not go very far in North Korea. The prison mines and torture chambers exist now, not in some past age or made up place. Arbitrary arrests and summary executions are routine. Johnson thoroughly researched North Korea for years while crafting this novel. He used the testimonies of survivors, refugees, and defectors to form his fiction. The thought that this novel is occurring in a very real place is as disturbing as any of the tortures and brutalities that befall the people inhabiting the pages. Such realities are jarring. When the national actress Sun Moon asks Dear Leader to not let anything bad happen to someone she loves his reply is, “In this world…no one can make such a promise” (387).
The Orphan Master’s Son is not all darkness. The loudspeakers sections, as well as the appearances of Kim Jong-Il, provide dark humor that breaks up the intensity. In one instance The Dear Leader is fascinated by the “gui-tar”, which he explains is “the instrument of choice for playing ‘the blues,’ which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision making” (346).
The Orphan Master’s Son is not just a well-honed work of technical prowess, but also a novel that generates powerful and honest emotional and intellectual responses from the reader. It is a page-turner, but not shallow. It is moving, but not sentimental. It is heady, but not pretentious. It has a message, but is not over-bearing. It is a piece of literary fiction that testifies to the power of narrative to give voice to a time and place, to make known the lives of the unknown, and to connect one person to another. It is a triumph, and should be the next title on your reading list.
Total pages: 443 Total FoA pages: 25,710