May 19, 2013
Kim Jong Un, This One’s for You
Posted on Feb 3, 2012
The structure of Part Two creates remarkable suspense. We get two points of view—the interrogator’s and Ga’s (Jun Do’s)—in separate chapters that proceed chronologically. All well and good, but here’s the killer: Not until the end of the novel do we figure out that the “real time” of the interrogator’s chapters takes place after all the events described in the Ga chapters.
This is narrative as algebra. Here’s the breakdown of the interrogator and Ga sections using the alphabet as a stand-in for time and narrative progression: op ab qr cd st ef uv gh wx ij yz kl mn. Got that?
For the full pleasure of this novel, read it twice—once to feel the full force of bafflement, and the second time, after you know where it’s going, to appreciate its intricate craft.
Mr. Kim, the innovation of this American author is not yet exhausted.
Now we add a third layer of narrative: the storytelling by the loudspeaker, a voice that intervenes throughout the novel. The loudspeaker calls, “Citizens!” and riffs off propaganda so outrageous it seems hyperbolic, though it sounds exactly like North Korea’s 2012 New Year’s message praising the “socialist fairylands” of Pyongyang. After reviewing the story, the loudspeaker then becomes an omniscient author and hilariously moves the action forward.
The tone of the entire book is casual and conversational about horrors, using dark humor to keep us from turning away. The interrogator says: “While we were in college, the big trend was to throw them all into the prison mines, where life expectancy is six months. And of course now organ harvesting is where so many of our subjects meet their end.” Now, though, interrogators settle subjects in “the Q and A chairs, which are amazingly comfortable. We have a contractor in Syria who makes them for us—they’re similar to dental chairs, with baby-blue leather and arm- and headrests.” The chairs are hooked up to a device called the autopilot, “a hands-free piece of electronic wizardry” where “we ramp up the pain to inconceivable levels, a shifting, muscular river of pain. Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity. … There’s no way around it: to get a new life, you’ve got to trade in your old one.”
One of the novel’s best passages describes how this Orwellian autopilot “works in concert with the mind” in a “dance with identity”:
The interrogator adds, “The electricity sometimes gives male subjects tremendous erections, so I’m not convinced the experience is all bad.”
Don’t forget true love. Jun Do, who as Ga is married to Sun Moon, really is in love with her, “a love he’s been saving up for his entire life, and it doesn’t matter that he must make a great journey to her, and it doesn’t matter if their time together is brief, that afterward he might lose her.”
When Jun Do first meets Sun Moon (after assuming Ga’s identity), she’s quite the moody, bourgeois, spoiled film star. But it turns out that Sun Moon, like everyone else in North Korea except perhaps the Dear Leader (as everyone must call Kim Jong Il), is faking it. Sun Moon eventually reveals her true story to Jun Do, crying, “My whole life is a lie. … I must act all the time,” telling how she was plucked from poverty by the Dear Leader himself.
The loudspeaker gets carried away with their growing intimacy. In one over-the-top passage, Jun Do and Sun Moon are visiting the national greenhouses. Here is their first sexual rapprochement. “Commander Ga dripped with sweat, and in his honor, groping stamens emanated their scent in clouds of sweet spoor that coated our lovers’ bodies with the sticky seed of socialism. Sun Moon offered her Juche to him, and he gave her all he had of Songun policy. At length, in depth, their spirited exchange culminated in a mutual exclaim of Party understanding.”
A lot more happens as the novel moves toward its own climax. Questions of identity and storytelling continue to refract all over the place. I’ll say only this: Appearing throughout the book is a DVD of “Casablanca.” If you know the story in that film, that’s the most important clue you’ll get about how “The Orphan Master’s Son” ends.
Back to you, Mr. Kim. On the Amazon website—I suppose you’re one of the few North Koreans online—the author has provided a helpful kind of Cliffs Notes. Johnson describes his fascination with how your government “prescribes an official narrative to an entire people.” He notes that though this official story is “a complete fiction,” every citizen is “forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script.” Your labor camps are filled with those “who hadn’t played their parts.”
Mr. Kim, do you believe the lies told by Dear Leader Dad? Will you continue to spout those lies? And if you do, will that be a conscious act of cruelty and power—or sheer self-delusion?
Bertrand Russell—did you read him at school in Switzerland, Mr. Kim?—wrote, “No satisfaction based upon self-deception is solid, and however unpleasant the truth may be, it is better to face it once and for all.”
Dear Supreme Commander, start by procuring this book.
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