Book Review | The Orphan Master's Son

The dark mechanism of the State: Robert Pisani reviews Adam Johnson's Pulitzer-winning novel about the 'Orwellian nightmare' of North Korea.

Adam Johnson's novel exposes the slimy underbelly of North Korea using a variety of literary techniques.
Adam Johnson's novel exposes the slimy underbelly of North Korea using a variety of literary techniques.

My first encounter with North Korean politics began with Guy Delisle's graphic novel, Pyongyang. In this account the author is allowed to visit the Korean capital, relating their life to an Orwellian nightmare. The power of this book lies in the insight it gives on how the Juche (self-governed) is put into practice, because North Korea is shrouded in mystery.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson goes a lot further. His novel exposes the slimy underbelly of North Korea through different literary techniques. There are elements of humour, satire, 'boy's own' style adventure, horror and so on. In theory this novel could easily be a mess but Johnson manages to hold everything together perfectly and maintains a readability throughout the multi layered plots.

The book is divided into two parts - the first being a biography of Jun Do, an orphan who is recruited to work as a kidnapper, spy and eventually a cultural ambassador.

On the surface, part one seems to be meandering. At one point I did wonder where the plot was going. Johnson does not tell us how Jun Do manages to become a kidnapper or spy, so it is a bit unsettling.

However this changes with the crucial section where Jun Do goes to the U.S., and although this is the most comical section of the book, it's also when Johnson's satire blows up and attacks both the totalitarian views of North Korea and hypocrisy of the U.S. government. Johnson emphasises that there aren't any good guys where politics are concerned.

At one point Jun Do encounters a dog which can only be placated by treats, resulting with a thought which summarises this both forms of governments: in communism, you'd threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.

Part one ends with Jun Do being arrested and taken to a prisoner camp. The scenes described are beyond horrific and can be stomach-churning at times, but the emphasis is to show us how quickly an identity can change.

Part two proves that Johnson is a very clever writer. Every detail that is in part one plays a much more important part in the second half of the book. Narrator-wise, it is more varied as Jun Do's story continues, taking the perspectives of an interrogative officer and also in the format of a public broadcast.

Public broadcasting speakers are strategically placed in public locations (a feature unique to North Korea), and used as propaganda machines. Both views criticise the North Korean form of government, culminating in the appearance of Kim Jong-il - or 'Dear Leader' - Johnson portrays him as a pompous and pretentious man proving that dictators have cartoonish personalities, though their inherent viciousness is not to be underestimated.

The Orphan Master's Son is primarily about identity. Throughout the novel, Jun Do takes on different personalities in order to prove his existence, concluding with the discovery of his true identity, which ironically leads to his downfall. Identity is the theme of the protagonist and location of the story.

North Korea as a place and a government prevents self-examination, leading characters to question themselves and creating drastic changes in their future. It appears that 'Dear Leader' can have a form of personality, and that very fact is questioned by the narrator: identity is bestowed upon the person by government.

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'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.

In his research for the novel, Johnson interviewed many defectors, and also visited Pyongyang, a difficult city to get into. However the novel is not without its faults, as Johnson has admitted to embellishing certain actions of the State to demonstrate the oppression manifest in a Juche government.

Critics have compared The Orphan Master's Son to Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley's Brave New World. The difference is that while Oceania and Huxley's futuristic London are fictional, North Korea is very much a reality.    

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