Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Book Review: The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son: A Novel of North Korea by Adam Johnson (Random House, 2012. 443 pp)

Adam Johnson is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow and teaches at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, Harper's, and The Paris Review. He is the author of Emporium, a short story collection, as well as the novel Parasites Like Us, which won the California Book Award.

An “Everyday” Story

I’ve taught several international students from North Korea. I especially remember one, as he has an amazing story regarding how he came to the United States. He was imprisoned, along with his father, in North Korea. He was beaten over the head repeatedly during his incarceration, and as a result became brain damaged. He managed to escape from the prison, cross the border to South Korea, and flee as a refugee to the United States where he found sanctuary.

From what I understand, this kind of story is far from rare for those that call North Korea home. From my student I learned that the propaganda provided by the North Korean State acts as an official narrative to an entire people. It doesn’t matter if a story is complete fiction, every citizen is required to mold their lives around the script of the state.

So, when I heard of The Orphan Master's Son, a story set in North Korea, I had to pick it up.


Photo by Lars Plogmann
In a timely fashion, Johnson managed to publish The Orphan Master’s Son just as the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il perished. The author depicts the misadventures of a character named Jun Do, a soldier-turned-kidnapper/surveillance officer in the dictatorial Communist state of North Korea. His grim narrative is in direct contrast to the alternative narrative of the state and Kim Jong Il, both of which are presented in the novel. Jun Do is nothing special; he’s just an everyday man—Jun Do seems to reference a homonym for the American placeholder name, John Doe—who trained in the North Korean military in the art of subterranean martial arts. Jun Do is uneasy about his position as a pawn, set in rigid uniformity within the North Korean end game, and is unsure about why he does what he does.

With accurate descriptive language, Johnson describes unsettling scenes throughout the entire novel in a way that actually makes you feel and taste the fear the characters encounter. Perhaps more importantly, he very easily depicts the struggles of conscience that our protagonist endures.

A Hero Emerges

Photo by John Pavelka
Despite his best efforts and his dislike of his job, Jun Do unintentionally gets promoted from a kidnapper to a translator, where he listens to American sentences and translates them into Korean. Then, he ends up impersonating a North Korean military hero, named Commander Ga, whom he most likely killed (it is up to the reader to ultimately decide). For me, the latter part of the novel during which Do impersonate the military hero ends up being more of a compelling and convicting commentary on North Korean Society.
“Dr. Song turned to Jun Do. ‘Where we are from,’ he said, ‘stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change...but in America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters” (121-122).
As Jun Do progresses through the novel, he learns that people’s identities are subordinate to what the state and The Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, declares to be true. Words or stories don’t matter. Facts and actions don’t matter. If doubt is cast over a situation, the North Korean government reserves the right to imprison, torture, or kill any person they please. Even General Ga (formerly Jun Do), a North Korean hero, fears the government greatly.
“The Dear Leader closed his eyes and smiled. I didn’t know which was worse—to displease him or to please him” (392). 
A Horror-Filled Reality

North Korean Propaganda
The characters in The Orphan Master’s Son fear all that they do. Their fates are subject to any ruling at the whim of the state in general or the Dear Leader in particular. Through his travels and impersonations, Jun Do finds that the rulings of a megalomaniacal leader ring incredibly true. As a result, the reader grieves in Do’s losses and cheers in Do’s victories.

Living through nightmares, Jun Do reveals the mystery and frightening nature of North Korea. The reader learns through Jun Do’s journey the true meaning of independence, freedom of speech, love, and sacrifice. This story brings to life the story of my student, one who actually had to live through the North Korean reality. I was moved by his story, and astounded at the truths of the North Korean state. As it functions both as fiction and as a report on the issues North Korean’s actually face, I think The Orphan Master's Son is a must read due to its timeliness as well as the fact that it is based partially in reality.

Verdict: 5 out of 5
Posted By: Andrew Jacobson

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