The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you. – from The Orphan Master’s Son, page 15 –
Jun Do is growing up in a North Korean work house for orphans, but he is not an orphan – he is the son of the orphan master. His mother is lost to him, although he yearns to know her. And as he grows and learns the manipulations of power, Jun Do is noticed by those high up in the state. His life unfolds in unusual ways – he is employed as a professional kidnapper, stealing people from beaches and delivering them to the capital city; he works as a spy aboard a fishing boat where he spends his nights listening to the disembodied voices of Americans and other foreigners; and he is chosen to travel to Texas with “diplomats” where he meets an American senator. During all these adventures, Jun Do is tasked with sorting out the right moves to allow for his survival. He must invent outrageous stories, and figure out the shifting allegiances in the government. Eventually he is imprisoned where he is exposed to starvation and torture before he escapes in a daring feat of murder and concealment of identity. Jun Do’s fate is to ultimately meet face to face with the country’s leader where he bravely takes a stand to save the life of a beautiful actress he has loved from afar.
Adam Johnson’s second novel is a robust tangle of intrigue and corruption in a country very few outsiders understand. North Korea is perhaps one of the most secretive governments in the world, and Johnson gives his readers a peek into what life may be like in a country where individual freedom and identity is sacrificed and stifled. Jun Do is first introduced as a young boy, and so the novel is a bit of a coming of age story. Early on, survival depends not only on who he knows, but how he can manipulate events so they are acceptable to the all-knowing government forces. Throughout Jun Do’s life, conspiracy theories are voiced as fact and lent legitimacy by being repeated over and over again. When governments control everything, including thought and identity, ridiculous theories somehow become accepted as truth.
It did sound a little paranoid when the Second Mate said it out loud. But the truth was the idea of conspiracy appealed to Jun Do. That people were in communication, that things had a design, that there was intention, significance, and purpose in what people did – he needed to believe this. – from The Orphan Master’s Son, page 47 -
It is this idea of lost identity, that resonated the most for me. Jun Do longs to know the identity of his mother. Later Jun Do becomes someone he is not in order to save the life of the woman he loves. People create stories about their lives which are far-fetched, untrue, and yet define who they are in the eyes of the government.
When you have a subject’s biography, there is nothing between the citizen and the state. That’s harmony, that’s the idea our nation is founded upon. Sure, some of the our subject’s stories are sweeping and take months to record, but if there’s one commodity we have no shortage of in North Korea, it’s forever. - from The Orphan Master’s Son, page 181 -
The Orphan Master’s Son is divided into two parts – the first narrated in the third person through the eyes of Jun Do as a child and a young man. The second half of the book is devoted to Jun Do as “Commander Ga” following his escape from a prison work camp. This latter half of the book has an other worldly feel to it as it moves from the voice of the government, to the voices of the men tasked with learning the truth about “Commander Ga,” to the underlying love story of Jun Do and Sun Moon. The narration of the novel is unsettling. Nothing is as it seems and truth is elusive.
I was honored to meet Adam Johnson and listen to him speak while attending Booktopia in Santa Cruz this fall. He was able to do something few Americans have been able to do: visit North Korea. He shared with his audience that it is hard to find a human portrait of North Korea and all information is very controlled. It is a crime for North Koreans to speak to foreigners; in fact, foreigners are only allowed to visit the capital of Pyongyang where their visit is restricted and managed by handlers. Johnson’s novel is his interpretation of life in this country where the history of torture and imprisonment is hard to imagine. What Johnson does so well in his book is to find that human portrait hidden from view. Jun Do becomes the heart of the people – a man searching for truth, beauty and love in a country where those things are elusive.
The Orphan Master’s Son is a dense and complex novel that deserves more than one reading. This would be an excellent book to be dissected by book clubs. Readers who love literary fiction and who enjoy complex characters will want to read this novel. It should be noted that The Orphan Master’s Son is not an easy read – it is disturbing and filled with imagery of life in a society which does not honor individuality. There were moments when I simply closed the book for awhile, unable to go on. But for those readers who stick with it, this is an unforgettable portrait a country and the people who survive under the most difficult of circumstances.