“The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel” (2012) follows the story of North Korean orphan Jun Do as he grows up and navigates the precarious political environment of his native country. Through this character, author Adam Johnson takes his reader on a journey through life in a communist country: from an orphanage, to a soldier and DMZ tunnel inspector, a government kidnapper, a radio transmission translator, a prison camp, and finally to an assumed member of the elite in Pyongyang. Johnson expertly mixes the genres of literary fiction and magical realism to paint a very realistic and bleak picture of life in North Korea.
In the spirit of the hyperbolic propaganda of the North Korean government, Johnson expertly convinces his readers to believe the unbelievable. Born in an orphanage among the lowest rungs of society, Jun Do is subject to the whims of the government and is transferred from one dangerous job to another.
“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.”
Over time, Jun Do begins to learn and understand the North Korean art of manipulation and uses it to manipulate the Dear Leader himself, Kim Jung Il.
Johnson skillfully combines the unrealistic and realistic components of his story. Although this is a work of fiction, Johnson’s beautifully haunting descriptions of North Korea culture are better than any history book.
“No nation sleeps as North Korea sleeps. After lights-out, there is a collective exhale as heads hit pillows across a million households. When the tireless generations wind down for the night and their red-hot turbines begin to cool, no lights glare on alone, no refrigerator buzzes dully through the dark. There’s just eye-closing satisfaction and then deep, powerful dreams of work quotas fulfilled and the embrace of reunification.”
Most illuminating are the comparisons and comments made about North Korea’s greatest enemy, America. Johnson has his readers look at America through the eyes of his North Korean characters — a new perspective for the Western reader indeed.
Sun Moon, the national actress of North Korea, says to an American captive, “How does a society without a fatherly leader work? How can a citizen know what is best without a benevolent hand to shepherd her? Isn’t that endurance, learning how to navigate such a realm alone — isn’t that survival?”
A typical propaganda story rings out over the loudspeakers espousing the virtues of virginity and the evils of America, “Being the only animal with eyes sharp enough to spot virginity, witness our crow circle a Juche Youth Troop, and nod in approval as this lustrous avian performs an aerial inspection of the reproductive purity. [The crow] won’t let ours become a nation where people give names to canines, oppress others because of the color of their skin, and eat pharmaceutical sweetened pills to abort their babies.”
“The Orphan Master’s Son” is an ambitious and insightful story. The protagonist, Jun Do is a classic underdog the reader finds themselves routing for and forgiving his slightly immoral acts and character flaws. Johnson not only illuminates the nightmarish and illusive North Korea but also explores the very meaning of love, sacrifice, truth and fiction, and glory.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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