The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

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And then the idea of a portrait, of any person, placed over your heart, forever, seemed irresistible. How was it that we didn’t walk around with every person who mattered tattooed on us forever?

In case you haven’t noticed, I like lists. I sit up and take notice when book awards roll around, and although it is highly unlikely that I will ever get around to reading all of them, I enjoy the dream.

But sometimes award winners aren’t exactly the easiest of books to read. Like Paul Harding’s Tinkers and Jaimy Gordon’s Lord of Misrule. Both books beautifully written but books I Did Not Finish.

So when the description of the book screams such prestigious names, I can’t help but go, ooh…

“NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST • LONGLISTED FOR THE AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION’S ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL • WINNER OF THE CALIFORNIA BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER”

And then of course it won the Pulitzer.

So I was a little surprised when The Orphan Master’s Son turned out to be a very readable book. I guess I wasn’t expecting a book set in North Korea to be, well, likeable. Maybe because the last book I read on North Korea (Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea) was rather depressing. A fantastic eye-opener of a book, but just so painfully sad.

At the heart of The Orphan Master’s Son is Pak Jun Do (as in, John Doe) who was brought up in an orphanage and believes that he is the orphan master’s son, not just another boy abandoned by his parents.

He is conscripted into the army and works in the tunnels under the Demilitarised Zone (no flashlights). Then he’s sent to kidnap unsuspecting Japanese. After that he’s sent to learn English and off he goes onto a fishing boat where he listens to and translates radio broadcasts, including some foreign accents playing chess and two American women rowing across the ocean. This then leads to a diplomatic trip to Texas where he and a few other North Koreans meet a US senator. The trip doesn’t turn out well and Jun Do finds himself in a work/concentration camp where he befriends an eccentric woman who photographs the inmates, and comes face to face with national hero Commander Ga, the husband of Sun Moon, the actress who is tattooed on Jun Do’s chest!

And…. we’re only about halfway through, because this is just part one, “The Biography of Jun Do”. Part two, “The Confessions of Commander Ga” is told from the perspective of an interrogator who has taken ‘Commander Ga’ (it’s Jun Do) into custody and is trying to determine the whereabouts of Sun Moon and her children – are they alive? Interspersed among his narrative is the chorus of loudspeakers broadcasting the state’s propaganda from every apartment to all its citizens, including the story of Sun Moon.

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Are you still with me?

It’s confusing isn’t it?

It is a wonderfully bizarre read. But with so much heart. And oh, the writing.

Not that he envied those who rowed in the daylight. The light, the sky, the water, they were all things you looked through during the day. At night, they were things you looked into. You looked into the stars, you looked into dark rollers and the surprising platinum flash of their caps.

And it’s funny.

And it’s painful.

And what is perhaps the most painful part of it all is that while this is a work of fiction, it is based on fact. The torture, starvation, deprivation, cruelty and sadness that you read about in this book could be taking place right this very minute in North Korea.

No nation sleeps as North Korea sleeps. After lights-out, there is a collective exhale as heads hit pillows across a million households. When the tireless generators wind down for the night and their red-hot turbines begin to cool, no lights glare on alone, no refrigerator buzzes dully through the dark. There’s just eye-closing satisfaction and then deep, powerful dreams of work quotas fulfilled and the embrace of reunification. The American citizen, however, is wide awake. You should see a satellite photo of that confused nation at night—it’s one grand swath of light, glaring with the sum of their idle, indolent evenings. Lazy and unmotivated, Americans stay up late, engaging in television, homosexuality, and even religion, anything to fill their selfish appetites.

Adam Johnson even says in an interview with the Paris Review that he kept 90 percent of Kim Jong-il’s craziness out of the book, as he felt it was his “duty was to make him as real an individual as possible”.

“What is California, this place you come from? I have never seen a picture. What plays over the American loudspeakers, when is your curfew, what is taught at your child-rearing collectives? Where does a woman go with her children on Sunday afternoons, and if a woman loses her husband, how does she know the government will assign her a good replacement? With whom would she curry favor to ensure her children got the best Youth Troop leader?”

Johnson spent seven years writing this book, visiting North Korea once, and said in an interview with editor David Ebershoff: “In a world where expression is measured and spontaneity is dangerous, it was especially important to find moments of intimacy and humor and surprise.”

The Orphan Master’s Son is an intense book. It isn’t for the faint of heart, with its depiction of life in the work camp, and just life in North Korea in general. It is a heart-breaking, gut-wrenching read. But it is a book that reminds the reader that there is always hope, for it is hope that propels Pak Jun Do forward, to do the impossible, as he has already done so.

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Adam Johnson teaches creative writing at Stanford University. His fiction has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, Harper’s, Tin House, Granta and Playboy, as well as THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. His other works include EMPORIUM, a short-story collection, and the novel PARASITES LIKE US. He lives in San Francisco.

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4 thoughts on “The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

  1. I’ve passed this by at the library so many times without knowing anything about it. I won’t do that again! After having read a few non-fiction books about North Korea in recent years, this sounds like an interesting compliment to those and just a wonderful book in its own right.

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  2. I love Paris Review interviews; I always feel like they give me a fresh understanding of the author’s work. I’ve heard good things about this book before, but your thoughts on it really make me want to give it a read.

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