The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son, takes place primarily in North Korea, one of the most secretive and intensely isolated states in the world. A major theme of the novel is identity. Under Kim Jong-Il, often referred to as the Dear Leader, and the oppressive state apparatus he sits at the helm of, one must be flexible to the extreme in order to survive. In one memorable instance Dr. Song, a high level official, says to the novel’s protagonist Jun Do, “Where we are from 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.”

Jun Do, whose name is reminiscent of the English expression for any unknown man, John Doe, is a perfect embodiment of this piece of advice. The novel’s first section is a biography of his youth and young adulthood. From the orphanage where he is raised, Jun Do is selected to learn to fight in the dark subterranean tunnels the DPRK regime has dug under the DMZ into South Korea, the North’s “soiled little sister.” Subsequently, Jun Do is trained to kidnap citizens of foreign countries and to listen to radio transmissions at night on a fishing boat, where he becomes enthralled by the nightly broadcasts of two American girls who are attempting to row around the world. This biographical portion of the novel ends with Jun Do being taken on a trip to Abilene, Texas. Americans are described to him as being “very sentimental,” particularly towards dogs, and that having Jun Do on the diplomatic mission to tell a concocted story about being abused by the US Navy will win him favor among American political wives. Upon returning to North Korea, Jun Do is taken away to a prison mine camp for unclear reasons.

The second section of the novel tells the story of the Dear Leader’s archrival Commander Ga, whose name and family have been given to Jun Do, and the elaborate scheme he concocts to save Ga’s wife, the “national actress” Sun Moon, and her children. Unlike the first section of the novel, the second has three unique narrators. The first, which provides a measure of comic relief for a plot that descends continuously into the vagaries of life in North Korea, is the loudspeaker found in every home, workplace, and public space in the country. The voice from the speaker tells the propaganda version of the relationship between Commander Ga and Sun Moon. The second narrator is Commander Ga, who gives the most reliable account of what is truly happening. And the third narrator is an unnamed government interrogator who is attempting to write Commander Ga’s true biography.

The end of the novel will not come as a surprise to most leaders and the book is too long. However, even with those two qualifications, this is still a very good novel. Johnson gives life and agency to characters in a country that is frequently the subject of media attention but about whose citizens about whom we know next to nothing. Jun Do’s transformation from perfect compliance in carrying out orders handed down from people in power to driving forward a scheme that will disprove the invincibility of the Kim Jong-Il’s absolute power is a thrill to experience.

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