Wednesday, January 18, 2012

*The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

Random House, 2012
443 pp

While 2012 is not yet even three weeks old, it's just possible that I've found the novel that come next December I'll be listing as my favorite book of the year.  Go ahead -- scoff or do the eyeroll if you so choose, but as I said in an earlier post, The Orphan Master's Son has just set the bar for my reading year.  Rarely do I find something that affects me the way this book did, and when I have, it's generally been by an author from another country.  But with this novel, the prose, the characters, the story and the author's imagining of life under totalitarian rule in  North Korea all combine to produce the literary equivalent of the perfect storm in my reading universe. 

While getting my thoughts together and perusing the internet, I discovered an interview where the author notes that
"... in North Korea there is a national script, conveyed through propaganda. There is one notion about who the people are and what the national goals are, and you as a citizen are conscripted to be a part of this national narrative. . .  You have to relinquish your own personal desires.” 
And the main character in this story, Pak Jun Do, has spent a great deal of his young  life following the script.  His early life and career are laid out in the first part of this novel, "The Biography of Jun Do,"  which even by itself would have made an incredible story.  His father is in charge of the orphan camp called Long Tomorrows near Chongjin, where Jun Do grows up without a mother.  Orphans are very low in the social order, and are  hired out to various companies or other work details; when they get older they are sent directly to the military, where they are usually assigned the most dangerous jobs.  Jun Do, although not technically an orphan, ends up as a tunnel soldier, then ends up on assignment kidnapping people from Japan. From there, he is assigned to language school, then to a listening post on the fishing boat Junma, where he monitors radio transmissions.  After an encounter with an American interceptor at sea and later a defection, he is proclaimed a hero and recruited for a secret mission to Texas.  It is there, looking through of all things a telephone directory, that he comes to realize that there's a bigger and better world out there, and that he hates his "small, backward homeland, a land of mysteries and ghosts and mistaken identities." His return to North Korea leads directly to part two of the novel, "The Confessions of Commander Ga," where in a rather abrupt change, we find Jun Do in a prison mine where one of the outputs is the blood of the dead that is shipped to the capital, Pyongyang.  From there Jun Do's life takes on a new twist, one I won't reveal here, but it is a story guaranteed to keep you awake and turning pages because you do not want to miss even a second of Jun Do's story.

There is not one useless character in this novel, down to Brando, the dog, and they all serve to illuminate life in North Korea under the "Dear Leader" as imagined by the author. While some of the scenes in the book are downright funny and will make you laugh out loud, the author is quick to keep the reader in mind of some of the harsher realities that exist, some of which go beyond the prison camps and torture of inmates.  For example, there's an unforgettable scene in the second part of the novel where an interrogator flashes back to when he was eight years old, listening to  "a talk that every father must have with his son,"  a talk is meant to teach him how he must act to survive in this society:
"He told me that there was a path set out for us. On it we had to do everything the signs commanded and heed all the announcements along the way.  Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands."
To illustrate his point, his father goes on:
"Now take my hand," he told me. I put my small hand in his, and then his mouth became sharp with hate. He shouted, "I denounce this citizen as an imperialist puppet who should be remanded to stand trial for crimes against the state." His face was red, venomous. "I have witnessed him spew capitalist diatribes in an effort to poison our minds with his traitorous filth."...I was terrified, on the verge of crying. My father said, "See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If your mother ever must say something like that to me, in order to protect the two of you, know that inside, she and I are holding hands. And if someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it's not really you. That's inside. Inside is where the son and the father will always be holding hands." 
The author's range from funny to downright heartwrenching is amazing; his prose, his characters' dialogue, his sense of place and time are all nearly pitch perfect. 

The strongest  parts of the novel are found in how different people retain their dignity and integrity after enduring incredible hardships, and in what really constitutes a hero, a word that is bandied about at the upper echelons in keeping with the national myth. North Korea is a place where above all the myths behind the cult of personality endure, no matter what methods are used to ensure its survival -- "re-education," fear,  torture, etc.  While the author shows that not everyone buys into it, there is also propaganda everywhere, made very clear by the loudspeakers in everyone's living room, factory floors, offices, etc.  Announcements beginning with "Citizens"  are a device the author uses often throughout the novel, often related in a  tongue-in-cheek manner,  used to broadcast not only the latest good deed done by the Dear Leader  -- "Kim Jong Il was seen offering on-the-spot guidance to the engineers deeping the Taedong River channel," but also the myth: "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."

The Orphan Master's Son is a wonderful novel for several reasons, and I've just skimmed the surface of the story here.  I had only a small problem in terms of reading, and that was with the juxtaposition from part one to part two, where I read a few pages, scratched my head and had to go back again to make sure what I'd read was correct.  Once I figured out what was happening and continued reading, all was explained and back into smooth reading zone I went. 

 It's very obvious that the author has done his research, even traveling to North Korea.  At one point I looked up kidnapping of Japanese citizens by North Koreans and was amazed to discover that this practice has been going on for some time.  Furthermore, the propaganda and mythmaking around Kim Jong-il so beautifully incorporated into The Orphan Master's Son is now being ramped up in real life for the new leader Kim Jong-un, as shown in this article

Very highly recommended, although his book may not be for everyone -- many readers might find the story too dark or bleak to get through, so if you're looking for a lighthearted read,  forget it.  It is gritty and often difficult to get through, with scenes of torture and prison life, starvation, famine and other hardships endured by regular people in a situation in which they have little or no control.  And although this book is very approachable from a reader standpoint, some  may be bothered by the change in narrative form from part one to part two, which admittedly is a bit confusing at first.   On the other hand, it is a book in which the author's imagination regarding this closed society comes to life and translates into a credible look at a place most people know only through news reports.  

I can't say exactly why I loved this book, but it is one that made its way under my skin and one  I will not soon forget.  Bravo, Adam Johnson!


  1. This sounds fantastic! North Korea really intrigues me and I'm not scared of dark reads. I'm going to keep an eye out for this one - thank you for bringing it to my attention!

    1. Jackie: Thanks for your comment. I'm not afraid of dark reads either! I hope you get a chance to read it!

  2. I am reading "THE ORPHAN MASTER'S TALE" and really like it. I like how the story is told, the prose. Thank-you for your review :)

  3. You're welcome, Madeleine! It's such a freakin' good book I absolutely could not put it down. I'm happy you're liking it.

  4. A number of my real-life friends have read it and they loved it as well, but like you found the first part hard going. Personally, I considered the totality of the novel when writing my review, but the reading of it was really difficult on an emotional level in terms of imagining the reality behind the fiction. My book group is reading it for September, so I'll be interested to hear their individual reactions.


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