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Book Review: The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson

A literary thriller about North Korea.


The Orphan Master's Son

Random House, 2012, 443 pages



An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother - a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang - and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Considering himself “a humble citizen of the greatest nation in the world,” Jun Do becomes a professional kidnapper who must navigate the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands of his Korean overlords in order to stay alive. Driven to the absolute limit of what any human being could endure, he boldly takes on the treacherous role of rival to Kim Jong Il in an attempt to save the woman he loves, Sun Moon, a legendary actress “so pure, she didn’t know what starving people looked like.”

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.




This book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013. It's one of those books that tells a story of an alien land and characters who don't really exist in a way that has an aura of plausibility. The author clearly put a great deal of effort and research into investing his book with verisimilitude. But North Korea is so hidden from Western eyes, our knowledge of what life there is like known only from the sparse accounts of defectors and a few visitors, that it's hard not to wonder just how much a San Francisco writer with a MFA can really know about the country, even if he describes visiting the "Most Democratic Nation on Earth" in his afterword.

Kim Jong Il

Ignoring the question of how fictitious the fiction is, The Orphan Master's Son is by turns sad, creepy, thrilling, and romantic, set in Kim Jong Il's North Korea, a place where reality is whatever the Dear Leader says it is, where citizens daily live with the cognitive dissonance of accepting what they are told and disbelieving their own lying eyes, and struggle to survive and live their lives, even love, in a regime that can compete with the most horrifying fictional dystopias of YA literature for bloody-minded mechanistic evil. The DPRK is a great terrible machine that churns and grinds up citizens and workers alike, where even those with influence, prestige, or the Dear Leader's favor (especially those with the Dear Leader's favor) can find themselves falling into the gears.

Kim Jong Il on horseback

The protagonist begins his career as a kidnapper. We know that North Korea did sometimes send out commando teams who would abduct random South Korean, Japanese, and even Western civilians, bringing them back to North Korea to force them to teach language and culture to North Korean citizens. Our "hero," Pak Jun Do, is very good at what he does, but careers in the North Korean espionage bureaucracy are hazardous and capricious. He visits America, meets a Texas senator, learns to catch shrimp on a fishing boat, suffers torture, imprisonment in a mining camp, and then by the whims of fate, he kills and replaces a man who is a champion of the people, and before Kim Jong Il's eyes he must assume the role of the Dear Leader's golden boy, because for the Dear Leader to acknowledge that his golden boy was killed by a traitor would contradict the Dear Leader's words. Everyone, including the movie star wife of the man he replaced, must go along with the charade.

The novel's plot is as twisted as the nation of North Korea, but ultimately, it's a romance of freedom, about trying to maintain human dignity in the face of the unspeakable, and a kind of love story. The writing is literary and descriptive, with the sections narrated by a North Korean public broadcasting service the most amusing and convincing of all. Throughout the book, I must admit, I was never quite able to immerse myself in the reality of it because I kept having that nagging feeling that "This is all made up." The author might have done his research, he might have read every North Korean history and biography by North Korean defectors out there, but he's still only visited North Korea once and seen it through the heavily filtered mediation of his state escorts, so everything he describes about daily life, about how people feel in this dictatorship, is his own invention.

But, is that really so different from authors who write about characters living in 12th century England, or the Roman Empire, or Middle Earth? All of those writers are praised (or not) according to how realistic their worlds seem, even if we don't really know what was in the minds of people living in 12th century England except by what a few people at the time wrote down, and we can never know what one of Tolkien's elves "really" felt. The difference, of course, is that real North Koreans are alive today. Someday one of them might be able to read Adam Johnson's novel and tell us how closely it resembles his actual lived experience.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. It's an adventure in a world as dark and depressing as anything created by a SF author, and a look into what it might be like to live in a world like this — one in which you must daily pretend that reality is whatever you're told it is today, where nobody can be trusted, where everyone possesses the shared knowledge of how awful their lives are yet no one can speak of it. Maybe it doesn't matter if it's real.






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