The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
Earlier this month I turned on the morning news to discover Kim Jong Il, “Dear Leader” of the Democratic Republic of North Korea and the villain of The Orphan Master’s Son had died, succumbing to heart failure on December 17, 2011. In the novel’s world this would have been a surprising end for the energetic, nearly omniscient and omnipotent dictator. Adam Johnson’s Kim Jong Il is intelligent and erratic, funny but not cartoonish, childlike yet disturbingly competent, a man whose humanity is adeptly painted without lessening the evil of his actions or rule.
Pak Jun Do, the protagonist of The Orphan Master’s Son, is also many things: liar, orphanage taskmaster, tunnel soldier, professional kidnapper, spy, prisoner, impostor, and traitor. The novel is his life story, told sometimes in third person, sometimes by a nameless interrogator, and sometimes through state propaganda broadcasts. During its course Jun Do’s actions contribute to the suffering and deaths of children, abductees, coworkers and friends, but even when every fact points to the contrary; it is difficult to not see him as heroic.
Every citizen of Adam Johnson’s North Korea has been shaped into a seasoned liar, driven by fear. In many cases, a character’s true personality and motivations are unclear until their individual part in the story is drawing to a close. It is a world where even the simplest observation of reality can prove fatal for the offender and their entire family if it contradicts the state’s narrative, where loved ones practice denouncing each other, and parents conduct suicide drills with their children, preparing for the day that black trucks called “crows” show up to take them all to prison camps.
Despite an extremely oppressive environment, The Orphan Master’s Son’s population has not been ground completely into submission. They silently lead secret lives in the sparse minutes and tiny places that the government isn’t watching. This is best explained by the nameless interrogator when he describes his childhood relationship with now aging parents. He recalls the day his father explained to him “… 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 … we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands”.
I imagine very few people could attest to how closely Mr. Johnson has come to depicting the real North Korea or its citizens in The Orphan Master’s Son, but what he definitely portrays is a society most readers will find ominous and alien but wholly believable, filled with surprising humor, genuine human moments, small victories inexorably linked with tragedy, and heroism when it is least expected.