”The Orphan Master’s Son” A book by Adam Johnson

Citizens, gather ’round your loudspeakers! It is time for the final installment of this year’s Best North Korean Story, though it might as well be titled the Greatest North Korean Story of All Time! — from “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.”

book cover

The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel Edit this item

By Adam Johnson

Random House, 464 pages

Buy the book

Dr. Song turned to Jun Do. ‘Where we are from,’ he said. ‘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.’

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.

To see long excerpts from “The Orphan Master’s Son” at Google Books, click here.

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.

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”:

book cover

The Orphan Master’s Son: A Novel Edit this item

By Adam Johnson

Random House, 464 pages

Buy the book

Yes, picture a pencil and an eraser engaged in a beautiful dance across the page. The pencil’s tip bursts with expression — squiggles, figures, words — filling the page, as the eraser measures, takes notes, follows in the pencil’s footsteps, leaving only blankness in its wake. The pencil’s next seizure of scribbles is perhaps more intense and desperate, but shorter lived, and the eraser follows again. They continue in lockstep this way, the self and the state, coming closer to one another until finally the pencil and the eraser are almost one, moving in sympathy, the line disappearing even as it’s laid down, the words unwritten before the letters are formed, and finally there is only white.

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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