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The Orphan Master’s Son – Back for a Second Look

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Totalitarian is an old-fashioned word but then the Democratic People’s Republic of [North] Korea (DPRK) is an old-fashioned kind of nation even though it has nukes and is striving to have ICBM missiles capable of delivering them half way around the globe. And while totalitarian(ism) is one word that describes the subject of this novel, it is, if possible, too limiting.  But more about that later.

Jun Do is the novel’s protagonist and orphan. He is a typical creation of a totalitarian state in that he has absorbed the North Korean regime’s ideology—a single (if changing) historical narrative that is beyond dispute, a narrative that is delivered to its people in multiple propagandistic ways including loud speakers in every home, a narrative that centers on its dictator, Kim Jong Il, the World’s Greatest Leader. Jun Do has also been molded by the other primary aspect of totalitarianism: terror directed by the regime against its citizens, terror that alienates one citizen from another and from their own sense of any individuality, integrity or congruity.

Jun Do, while technically not an orphan, was separated from his mother as a child and subsequently was treated as an orphan although his father was still present.  He was trained to withstand exceptional levels of pain while functioning mole-like in the dark tunnels that the North Koreans had built beneath the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. As the novel opens he appears to be fully simpatico with the regime.

How Jun Do survives his tunnel profession and escapes the effects of totalitarianism is the main theme of Johnson’s novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. Half way through the story, Jun Do disappears into prison but emerges with another identity, that of Commander Ga, a high-level DPRK functionary and husband of the beautiful North Korean movie actress, Sun Moon.  In addition, she is the object of Kim Jong Il’s obsession. That she is married to Commander Ga, either the real or the invented one, is beside the point. This situation leads to delicious and comedic complications despite their potentially deathly consequences.

While reading this novel I kept thinking about the two major dystopian political novels that I grew up with: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Although Johnson’s novel is not likely to achieve their iconic status, Orphan Master’s Son is both entertaining and compelling.  Entertaining because Johnson’s both imagined and real characters are convincingly portrayed. One of his less admirable characters observes, after opening a box with a box cutter, that he has never before used his box cutter for its intended purpose. Because this scene is a flashback, the reader understands the allusion, an understanding that is both grisly and comical.  In part, the novel is compelling for me because much of it is essentially historical. The realistic details in the book, and there are dozens of them, came from Johnson’s several visits to North Korea while writing his novel. Presumably, his North Korean minders weren’t aware of his literary pursuits.

Johnson’s story is well-crafted, deftly using two narrators and an omnipresent loud speaker to move the story along towards its suspenseful conclusion.  The loudspeaker narrator returns in the last chapter to provide us with the correct interpretation and corrected history of the events just recounted.   –  Neal Ferguson

Also available by Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master’s Son; Fortune Smiles; Parasites Like Us; Emporium; Adam’s e-mail Network; Zebula.


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