The Orphan Master’s Son,
written by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master’s Son,
written by Adam Johnson

In a World Where You Don’t Own the Story of Your Life, Love is the Only Tale Worth Telling

 

“To me, what everybody gets wrong about ghosts is the notion that they’re dead.” So says Pak Jun Do, the protagonist of The Orphan Master’s Son, a man who has spent his entire life being haunted, not by the deceased but by the absent. He swears he is not an orphan, yet his father is long gone and his mother is someone he’s only ever had a theoretical concept of. She exists as an entity he cannot forget or fully grasp, a living thing that calls out to him on some emotional frequency that surpassess the logical or intellectual. He will spend the rest of his life seeking something (or someone) to fill the void she has left within him and, when he finally discovers it, the ironic tragedy of his life comes full circle as he is forced to reckon with the debt of loving something you can never truly have.

This man Jun Do, with his fragmented mentality and scattered history, is a citizen of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is appropriate enough seeing as the country itself exists more as a notional gesture towards existence than a practical version of it. Historically and in this book, the people of North Korea function solely to prop up a single man, Kim Jong-il, a crazed megalomaniac who rewards sycophancy and dispenses cruelty on a whim. The best each citizen can hope for is to live on a daily basis with the least amount of discomfort as possible which, more often than not, means passing the buck onto whomever they can to avoid a grisly fate. It is not, to put it lightly, the ideal place to seek inner peace.

However, being the isolated, propaganda-fuelled dictatorship that it is, North Korea is the perfect place for Jun Do to pursue one of his passions: receiving and reporting on foreign radio transmissions, a profession that mirrors his blind search for meaning within a haze of static and disinformation. Compounded by the fact that the very notion of identity takes on a strangely fluid property in North Korea, Do’s search for himself becomes more difficult and yet strangely viable. Who you are in this land is always up for debate, defined by what function you can best serve for the state. It stands to reason, then, that as long as it benefits those in power, you can be whoever you want to be.

Author Adam Johnson has taken great care to layer every aspect of this book’s plot with meaning without overstuffing it. The Orphan Master’s Son cries out to be analysed, but this never supersedes the joy of its wiry momentum. The characters, along with their plights, desires and shortcomings are always front and centre, it’s simply a credit to Johnson’s intellect and finesse that it all ties in so well thematically.

This starts at the most basic level, with the protagonist’s name: growing up the son of the drunken caretaker in an orphanage, it was Jun Do’s job to name the children in his father’s care, drawing from a list of North Korean martyrs renowned for their heroic acts. He explains that his own selection of “Pak Jun Do” was a soldier who sacrificed himself in order to pass the ultimate test of loyalty and gain the respect of his fellows, much as Do longed to be accepted by the orphans in his care that he often had to make hard decisions for.

That said, Jun Do constantly fights back at being labeled an orphan, distancing himself from what is a maligned group in the DPRK. This frequent misperception of him is accentuated by the fact that “Jun Do” sounds a fuckload like “John Doe” – which is actually pointed out to Do by a bunch of Americans he encounters – of course being a person who is not missing in physical form, but simply lacking an identity.

One of the strangest and most perverse pleasures of the novel is its rendering of Kim Jong-il who, during the period in which the novel takes place, was still the Supreme Leader of the DPRK. Similar to the way historical fiction takes liberties with real-world figures for the sake of the narrative and tone of a book, there’s an unsettling thrill at seeing such a despicable human being involved so heavily in the wider story here. It’s certainly not reductive but – similar to the way Henry VIII’s capricious vanity comes to define him in the Wolf Hall series (which we’ll discuss further later in the month) – there’s certainly a sense that the full extent of Kim Jong-il’s abhorrent nature is condensed down to its most propulsive aspects.

Chiefly, he comes across as a man who has experienced ceaseless liberties his entire life despite his abhorrent behavior, a man who either truly believes in the nobility of having his every whim facilitated or has long ago abandoned any shame in being the only person in the entire fucking country safe to act however he pleases. For this very reason, one of the most satisfying moments in the whole book is the one time something doesn’t go his way and, in a moment of impotent bewilderment, he is almost dismantled entirely. He has no recourse but to simply gape in disbelief that the his will cannot always be enforced upon the universe.

In the end, the lasting impression of the book is the surreal horrors of North Korea and the way in which everyone accepts them so readily. Loudspeakers in the capital city Pyongyang blare at random intervals throughout the day, sometimes as city-wide wakeup calls, sometimes to spew hilariously severe propaganda, often just in order to remind citizens of their duty to the country and the splendour of their glorious leader. Walking down the street at the wrong time of day might see you whisked away to a “volunteer” work crew. A recent batch of tainted peaches caused lethal botulism in whoever ate them; finding no other solution, the canning factory was simply shut down. If you find yourself in a makeshift medical tent and are deemed too injured to be worth saving, your blood will be syphoned off until you slowly fade into nothingness (this is considered a decent way to go). It’s the kind of unreasonably fucked up shit that’s made all the more upsetting because it’s very much happening somewhere in the world right now.

As I’ve been hovering around this cliché for most of the review I’m sure it won’t shock you to learn that – beyond these distressing aspects of daily life and the quest for freedom, beauty and truth – this is ultimately a love story. What’s more, there are approximately zero Pulitzer Prize winning books that that can’t be said for, but that’s for another time. It bears saying, however, that few of those tales are as achingly, unrequitedly powerful as that of Jun Do and the actress Sun Moon. Though Do has spent his life longing for his mother, he comes slowly to realise that this desire is more of a mutable desire to escape the misery of North Korea, of the stultifying existence he and his people have foisted upon them from birth. This, in turn, is later exhibited as a need to see Sun Moon set free, whatever the cost.

This is the inescapable, absorbing tragedy that is at the heart of The Orphan Master’s Son: it elicits sacrifices from people who have so little to give in the first place. Of course, that’s also what makes it so goddamned heartening, that these characters find themselves in a world that would strip everything from them and yet they succeed in divining purpose from their struggle. Regardless of how severely the odds are stacked against it, Jun Do manages to find a noble cause to throw his sacrifice behind, to lend meaning to what everyone insists will be a pointless endeavour. It’s not the cost or reward that matters, it’s that he did it for love, and no one can take that away from him.

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