May 20, 2013
Kim Jong Un, This One’s for You
Posted on Feb 3, 2012
”The Orphan Master’s Son”
I wonder if Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s new, poker-faced leader, will read this novel. If he does, he may be baffled unless his Switzerland schooling gave him a real understanding of Kafka, Nabokov, Pynchon, Swift and Borges. “The Orphan Master’s Son” by Adam Johnson—an American—is a rich, careening, dystopian tale that stretches the form of a novel to give us a visceral hit of life inside North Korea.
So Kim Jong Un, this review’s for you. This audacious and (to despots like you) dangerous novel set in your country is definitely the Greatest North Korean Story of All Time, no matter what you might decree.
“The Orphan Master’s Son” is about a lot of things—freedom and captivity, love and loss, truth and lies—but at its deepest level it’s about identity and story. It’s about who holds the power to say, “This is who I am.”
The protagonist, a man named Pak Jun Do (I can’t help but think “John Doe”), has his life story determined by other people—mostly the North Korean state—again and again until he finally seizes his own power to define who he is.
This novel is not for readers who are squeamish about form or content. Horrors such as bloodletting in prison mines are followed by hilarious banter from a young careerist (the profession is interrogation) and his interns, interspersed with a sort of Greek chorus of propaganda, hellish and humorous, boomed from the state through the loudspeakers affixed in every North Korean home and workplace. This novel proves the truism that comedy is rooted in tragedy.
The narrative is sometimes confusing, even as you can’t put the book down. It jumps between characters and through time with only the slightest clues to make the connections. The shards of the story come together only retrospectively. But this shattering of the narrative creates an absurd, cognitive dissonance—the experience of North Korean society.
The plot is quite a roller coaster ride. If the summary that follows is a bit breathless, and if you, Mr. Kim, feel nauseated, just swallow hard and carry on, as your people do.
Divided into two parts, the novel opens with Jun Do as a boy at a work-camp orphanage called Long Tomorrows, where he toils under the cruel master, his father. He survives to be sent into one strange job after another. He fights in the tunnels under the DMZ, then gets promoted, so to speak, as a kidnapper of people in Japan. Next up is carrying out radio surveillance from a fishing boat. The sailors all have tattoos of their wives on their chests, and they give the unmarried Jun Do a tattoo of North Korea’s famous film actress, Sun Moon, who will become important later.
Jun Do fails at his next gig, a diplomatic/espionage mission to Texas. He is imprisoned in a mining camp. A maimed woman takes post-death photographs of inmates to help the government close out its records on the prisoners. Why she decides to help Jun Do isn’t totally clear, but she photographs him as dead so he can be freed of his identity as Jun Do and, potentially, escape. Part One ends, “from this point forward nothing further is known of the citizen named Pak Jun Do.”
This roller coaster plot now performs some real loop-de-loops. Part Two, “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” opens one year later. We meet a young interrogator taking the “biography” of the infamous Ga, apprehended for supposedly murdering his wife, the actress Sun Moon, and their children. Their bodies are missing.
We begin to gather that the man who the interrogator believes is Ga is actually Jun Do. We learn that a year ago at the prison camp, Jun Do, newly stripped of his identity, killed the real Commander Ga, who as head of prison mines had been visiting the camp. Jun Do took Ga’s uniform and assumed his identity—including being married to Sun Moon. (The tattoo helps.)
Impossible? Absurd? But this is North Korea, where the story, the fabrication, is truer than truth.
Mr. Kim, surely you follow. But gird yourself because now we enter even trickier narrative terrain. One of the challenges for any novelist is how and when to deliver information—planting just enough to let the reader understand what’s going on, but not so much as to reveal the mystery. Novels, Mr. Kim, are about seduction, not coercion.
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