In a brilliantly crafted twist, it was actually Kim Il Sung who famously said, “Ask not what the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea can do for you; ask what you can do for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” or at least according to Adam Johnson in his new book, The Orphan Master’s Son. Early on in the novel, it was clear to readers that we were in a very different and even strange world. Think of Alice as she is transported through the looking glass. History had been rewritten. North Korea was the greatest nation on the planet, and it provided for other nations who had been stricken by famine and natural disasters. Most citizens felt free and could not imagine another kind of life. But this was not true for Johnson’s hero, Pak Jun Do.
Part one of Johnson’s novel was called “The Biography of Jun Do.” Pak Jun Do was a man who could take on the role of anyone; his name, in fact, was a play on the English name “John Doe.” As Johnson wrote, “Jun Do’s mother was a singer. That was all Jun Do’s father, the Orphan Master, would say about her.” Growing up in the orphanage Long Tomorrows was hard for Jun Do. As the oldest boy at the orphanage, he had many responsibilities, one of which was “renaming the new boys from the list of the 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution.” His father showed “no favoritism to his son, the only boy at Long Tomorrows who wasn’t an orphan,” and he showed no love either.
Throughout the novel, I could not help but wonder if Jun Do did not invent the scenario of the orphan master being his father, just as he invented so many things in the book. Again and again, Pak Jun Do was like a snake: he shed his skin to become something or someone new.
He became a tunnel soldier underground in the Demilitarized Zone. Then, Jun Do assisted in kidnapping Japanese people. He literally plucked some from beaches. In one instance, Jun Do and Gil, a translator, kidnapped a man who was strolling on the beach with his dog. After they kidnapped the Japanese man and got him into their boat, Jun Do still heard the howls of the canine. “No matter how far out they got, its baying carried over the water, and Jun Do knew he’d hear that dog forever.” For me, brazenly sailing in Japanese waters, not to mention kidnapping Japanese citizens, was quite implausible. Yet, this all seemed to go back to the North Korean vision that the country and its people were invincible. At times, Johnson’s vision bordered on the absurd, but a reader just has to go with it.
Jun Do shed his skin yet again, but this time he became a radio operator on a shrimp boat. He heard many different transmissions, including a chess match played on the International Space Station. The highlight, though, for Jun Do was the girl rower, the one who rowed in the dark. “Each night she paused to relay her coordinates, how her body was performing, and the atmospheric conditions. Often she noted things—the outlines of birds migrating at night, a whale shark seining for krill off her bow.” The girl rower mesmerized Jun Do. In another impossible plot twist, Americans boarded the shrimp boat and ripped up photos of both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, creating an international incident. I was quite surprised some instances between the US and North Korea did not start a war, in fact.
The struggle with the Americans led Jun Do to Texas on a North Korean diplomatic delegation to meet with a state senator there. This section made me laugh. The craziness, the comedy, was just too absurd. However, Johnson’s skills with dialogue shone through as we saw just how North Koreans see Americans and vice versa.
In an exciting twist, the North Koreans imprisoned Jun Do. But he was not finished with his shape shifting. Oh, no. Part two of Johnson’s novel was called “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” and it was here that Johnson’s storytelling was well-crafted and intriguing. Commander Ga was like the Brad Pitt of North Korea; his wife, Sun Moon, was the equivalent of Angelina Jolie. My point is that Commander Ga and Sun Moon were famous, good-looking, and wealthy, at least by North Korean standards. Jun Do assumed the identity of Commander Ga, something everyone knew, even the Great Leader, but they allowed it to happen anyway. Why? Because Jun Do did a better job of being Commander Ga than Commander Ga!
How could a former orphan assume the identity of a powerful North Korean official? Jun Do was not an ordinary character, and he made it a practice of changing his identity just like he changed his clothes. Sometimes, though, Johnson crossed the line from irony and stepped into absurdity and farce.
Much of North Korea and its practices are farcical, though, so I forgive Johnson. He uses farce to make a point and also to tell the story, and it is a point that needs to be reiterated: North Korea is a sham state. The Orphan Master’s Son is part mystery/thriller and part drama, but it is also equal parts comedy. North Koreans in Texas? Whoever heard of such? Johnson does it deliberately, and it works when taken as a whole. His story stands out more when readers see it through the lens of irony, comedy, and absurdity.
Not everything, though, was comedy. One scene reminded me of the 2009 release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were held in prison in North Korea. They were released only when former President Bill Clinton helped negotiate on their behalf. The North Koreans captured Jun Do’s girl rower and imprisoned her for more than a year. Kim Jong Il himself visited her and had her translate his works. The senator from Texas and his entourage travel to North Korea in a kind of exchange: something for something. The North Koreans will release the American rower only if the Americans return something very important to Kim Jong Il. There was intrigue galore in this section.
Johnson’s novel works well. In The Orphan Master’s Son, he lifts the veil on North Korea, a closed society made up of secrets, half-truths, and often downright lies. We just do not know much about the inner workings of the nation. For example, when Kim Jong Il died back in December 2011, the North Koreans kept it a secret for 51 hours after it occurred. We know even less about his son, Kim Jong-un, his successor. That gives Johnson room to play and room to invent.
Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford and lives in San Francisco. His previous works are the short-story collection Emporium and Parasites Like Us, a novel. The Orphan Master’s Son has been hailed as one of the best books of 2012, and it is easy to see why.
Just who is Pak Jun Do? Well, this is North Korea, and in North Korea, nothing is as it seems. “There’s no way around it; to get a new life, you’ve got to trade in your old one.”