The Orphan Master’s Son
by Adam Johnson
By naming his protagonist Jun Do, Adam Johnson sets both scene and tone for his 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. All the chief characters are North Korean and most of the action takes place in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea which, on the face of it, makes the book an unusual candidate for an American prize. However, like all good literature, The Orphan Master’s Son poses questions – deep questions about what and who we are.
Pak Jun Do has grown up in an orphanage. He receives more beatings than the other children and concludes from his treatment that he is the child of the orphan master and not an orphan at all. Such are, apparently, the realities of the regime under which he lives. But is Jun Do really an anonymous nobody in a crumbling, dystopian state? Is he a national hero? Can it possibly be that he is both? For in the country we know as North Korea what matters is the story. And the story is what the real orphan master, the DPRK, wishes it to be; it is the human being who must change.
The Orphan Master’s Son is a satire, set in a place, part real and part imagined, of which we know very little. The novel is in two parts. The first, told in third person POV, follows the career of Jun Do after he leaves the orphanage. He joins a unit whose sole purpose is to kidnap Japanese as slaves to the DPRK. He is in love with Sun Moon, the country’s greatest actress, and has her image tatooed on his chest. He goes to language school to learn English, then is assigned to a fishing boat as a listener to international radio broadcasts. When the second mate defects, the Captain concocts a fantastic story to explain his absence, thereby turning Jun Do into a hero who risked his life at gunpoint to save another hero who’d been fed to sharks by the Americans. This fiction necessitates Jun Do having his arm chewed by a shark. Finally, Jun Do is attached as interpreter to a diplomatic mission to Texas. The mission fails, our hero’s status is revoked and he is made to ‘disappear’.
The second part of the book introduces us to Commander Ga, Jun Do’s alter ego, and to a first person narrator known only as the Interrogator. Alternating between points of view, interspersed with the occasional ‘broadcast’ by state radio, the remainder of the novel relates how ‘Ga’ – having gone to ‘pain school’ – develops a Kafkaesque friendship with his torturer, escapes from prison to pursue his love affair with Sun Moon and ultimately cheats the regime. The ending, though predicatably tragic, is in one sense triumphant, both tortured and torturer regaining at least part of their humanity. Once again, it is the story that matters; it is the man who must, and does, change.
Once I got going, I found the book difficult to put down. Adam Johnson, who visited North Korea for his research, has produced a work that is both convincing and entertaining. His depiction of the horrors of prison life and the torture by anonymous guards of the dehumanised inmates is quite graphic. However, he tempers it with ironic humour. In fact, some passages of The Orphan Master’s Son are very funny. Even The Dear Leader himself makes an entrance and hovers over the proceedings as a burlesque yet sinister clown. The characters live their lives in a world that shifts from the authentic through the surreal to the improbable, which is what I feel the author intended for them. But maybe, just maybe, through the satire, The Orphan Master’s Son shows us precisely what the republic of North Korea is all about – the hopelessness and helplessness of human existence in a country where life is cheap, and people plentiful and expendable. .