Given my current reading preferences, I probably wouldn’t have read Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The orphan master’s son, if it hadn’t been for my reading group, but I’m rather glad I did. It’s a confronting novel, not only because of its brutal content, but also because it is an outsider’s critique. I always feel more comfortable if criticism comes from within, free of external agendas. However, criticism from within is scarcely possible in a totalitarian regime, so I admire Johnson for taking it on.
Now that’s off my chest, let’s get to the book. Most of you probably already know what it is about. It is set in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea during the reign of Kim Jong-il (who died in 2011) and explores the lives of citizens living under his repressive, authoritarian rule. The novel is divided into two parts: The Biography of Jun Do, and The Confessions of Commander Ga. The first part is told in third person voice, in a linear chronology. The second part, however, is more complex. As well as continuing the third person narrative, there is a first person strand by a new character, an unnamed interpreter, and an “official” strand told via loudspeakers. While each has a linear chronology, they are told at different rates resulting in the overall chronological sequence being somewhat jagged. This structure reinforces one of the main themes of the novel which has to do with stories, lies and truths, and shifting identities.
The structure is one of my reasons for liking the book. I like it when authors use technical aspects of their work, like the structure, to reinforce their intention. It adds challenge to the reading, making me think about what the author is doing and why. It also, in this case, helped distract my mind from much of the brutality of the content. In the interview with his editor David Ebershoff at the back of my edition, Johnson said that he had “to tone down much of the real darkness of North Korea”. Wow, is all I can say to that.
Anyhow, I’ve written three paragraphs without saying anything about the story or plot. The first thing to say is that Jun Do (a play on John Doe, neatly suggesting hidden or uncertain identities) and Commander Ga are the same person. In the first part, Jun Do, the titular orphan master’s son, takes part in many “adventures” on behalf of the state, including working as a tunnel soldier, kidnapping Japanese, gathering radio information on a fishing boat, and representing North Korea on a delegation to Texas after which, because they fail their assignment, he is sent to Prison 33, a prison mine. In this first part, Jun Do learns the art of survival and, importantly, the importance of stories to that survival. In the second part, Jun Do has survived the prison, killed the hated Commander Ga, and emerged, with the state’s sanction, to take his place, including moving in with Ga’s wife, the beautiful actress, Sun Moon.
It is in this part that Do/Ga’s life comes together and then starts to “unravel”, though not without his complicity and not without doing some damage of his own. The novel is beautifully plotted so that seemingly random or bizarre occurrences – such as Jun Do hearing radio signals from the “girl rower”, his chest being tattooed by a boat captain with an image of Sun Moon, and his being given a DVD of the film Casablanca – all find their place in the latter part of the novel.
“there is nothing between the citizen and the state” (interrogator)
But now I want to get back to stories. In the first part, the fishing boat crew concoct an improbable story involving Jun Do to explain the disappearance of the Second Mate, who has defected, and thereby protect themselves from retribution. In Texas, when Jun Do expresses uncertainty about repeating this story, the delegation leader, Dr Song, tells him:
Where we are from … stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly he’s be wise to start practising 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.
This is what Jun Do does throughout the novel. He changes to suit the role he finds himself in. He has to, to survive. In the second part of the novel, we are presented two versions of his story – the third person narrated one which we take as the “truth”, and the propaganda one broadcast over loudspeakers to all the “citizens” of Pyongyang.
Alongside these two narratives is that of our first person narrator, the interrogator, who works in Division 42, the department which extracts information from enemies of the state. A self-styled biographer, he eschews the thuggish techniques of the “rival interrogation team”, the Pubyok, although his apparently benign story collecting methods conclude with a brutal pain (electric shock) machine which aims to create
a rift in the identity— the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins the crossing. In a few weeks, he will be a contributing member of a rural farm collective […]. There’s no way around it: to get a new life, you’ve got to trade in your old one.
He is, in a strange way, a voice of conscience, as he starts to question what it’s all about. Indeed, at one point he asks his father “Is it just about survival? Is that all there is?”. This question recurs near the end when Do/Ga, our interrogator’s last case, imagines a life that “would no longer be about survival and endurance”.
In most of my reading, multiple viewpoints are used to convey the idea that there are different ways of seeing things. It’s usually pretty benign, even if some of the individual perspectives are not. But in this novel, there is something sinister going on, so sinister that if you are caught out in the wrong perspective you will very likely find yourself at a prison farm (or worse). You need to make sure, in other words, that your identity matches the one the regime has for you. And this brings me to the scariest thing about the society Johnson depicts – the precariousness, or uncertainty or, even, the randomness of existence. To survive, you must believe what you are told or, as Jun Do learnt early in his life, do what you are told.
“no beginning, an unrelenting middle, and ended over and over” (Do/Ga)
I’ve said nothing, though, about the experience of reading this book. It may sound silly, given what I’ve written above, but this novel takes you on a wild ride. Besides the inevitable brutality, it has tender moments, some very funny ones, and is more than a little absurd. It asks us to accept, and believe in, Jun Do as our guide. It’s a dystopian novel with a touch of romance, adventure and mystery/thriller.
The success of a book like this rests on its authenticity, on whether we believe the truths that lie beneath the fabrication. Unfortunately, I do.
The orphan master’s son
London: Black Swan, 2013