In a funny coincidence, I started writing my review of The Orphan Master’s Son two days after it won the Pulitzer Prize. I hardly ever read books before they win anything, so this made me feel strangely like a trend setter for once in my life. I liked The Orphan Master’s Son a lot, even though to be honest I didn’t find myself thinking “this should win some other huge award” while I was reading. In a second, much less funny coincidence, this book won the prize as North Korea is rattling its sabres the loudest in a while. Let’s call it timely (did this have any influence on the jury’s decision? I don’t know)…
The Orphan Master’s Son falls into two parts. The first one follows the life of Jun Do, who grows up in an orphanage in North Korea, trains to be a government agent, and is eventually sent to the US on a mission that… doesn’t go as well as expected. Or perhaps, that couldn’t possibly have gone right, given the eccentric expectations of the Dear Leader (back then, still Kim Jong Il) when conceiving it. The second half is called “The Confessions of Commander Ga” and is written from various perspectives, including that of an interrogator who employs new methods in order to get political prisoners to confess. One of these political prisoners is “Commander Ga”, the identity Jun Do takes on in order to get out of the prison mine he was sent to after his mission to the US. The second perspective is a propaganda version of the relationship between “Commander Ga” and his wife, the “state-owned” actress Sun Moon. This second perspective is fluidly intertwined with the third, a third-person account of what ‘really’ (?) happened between “Commander Ga” and Sun Moon.
The Orphan Master’s Son was the sort of book that made me go to bed earlier so I could read it. It was so different from the things I usually read that I found it immensely refreshing. As for the themes it covers, there were two that struck me as particularly interesting, and they are closely linked: identity and uncertainty. As for the question of identity, in the first part it never becomes quite clear whether Jun Do is really the orphan master’s son or actually an orphan. There are hints that his being the son of the bitter orphanage director is a comfort story Jun Do has made himself believe: for instance, like the other orphans, he is named after a North Korean national hero, but Jun Do himself claims that this is because his father did not want to set him apart from the other orphans. In the second part, it never becomes quite clear how Jun Do came to assume the identity of Commander Ga, a national hero fallen into disgrace. According to the third-person account, he killed Commander Ga in the prison mine, took on his identity and walked out the front gate of the prison camp as Commander Ga. But why does everyone else, including the Dear Leader (then, still Kim-Yong Il) play along with his game? What makes the regime allow him to become Sun Moon’s “replacement husband”? Identity becomes interchangeable and meaningless in The Orphan Master’s Son. It seems that everyone can be anyone, as long as it doesn’t inconvenience the regime.
The questions above lead me to the second aspect that struck me about the novel: the permanent insecurity in which everyone lives, and the way Adam Johnson transfers this insecurity onto the reader. You never know what is true. Perspectives merge fluidly into one another. Identity is fluid and arbitrary. Nobody’s intentions are what they first seem to be. By leaving many aspects of the story open, including key questions like Jun Do’s origins, what exactly went wrong on his mission to the US, how and why he can escape the prison mine, and what the Dear Leader’s intentions are with regard to Sun Moon, Johnson places the reader in a space of total suspension, similar to the one his characters live in: with everyone spying on everyone else, everyone having second intentions, and people not even being able to trust their most immediate family, the characters are completely on their own, up in the air, and without any real guidance to hold on to. The idea of living with this feeling of complete uncertainty on a daily basis chills me to the bone. In this sense, Johnson is only able to provide a shadow of what life must be like under the North Korean regime. After all, when the reader closes the book, they return to the certainties of their personal lives.
However, The Orphan Master’s Son also relates what people are capable of once they do overcome this uncertainty and decide to fully trust another person. Sun Moon and her children eventually (almost) trust Jun Do, and their lives take on a very different turn as a result. In a space of complete loneliness, the ability to trust another person – even though the odds are that this person will betray you – becomes the only possible agent of change, but is limited to individuals, because in order to effect larger-scale change, more than two people would have to trust one another at the same time. This is seemingly impossible in the society depicted in The Orphan Master’s Son, and it paints a rather bleak picture of North Korea’s future: where the regime has managed to almost completely erode mutual trust, there is no room for social change.
Of course, many aspects of The Orphan Master’s Son are fictional, North Korea being the shadowy, impenetrable country that it is. Apparently, not even undercover BBC journalists are really able to uncover groundbreaking knowledge of what is really going on in the country. This aspect actually introduces yet another level of uncertainty into the novel: how close is Johnson really to the “truth” about North Korea? The idea that he might be extremely close (because he did do his research) made me very uneasy.
At any rate, he conveys some of the most harrowing aspects about dictatorship and totalitarianism in a masterful fashion. The Orphan Master’s Son is written in such a readable style that it actually took me a while to capture the full extent of this. Perhaps this is where a small issue with the novel may be taken: it is almost “too light” a read. If a reader doesn’t put in the effort to transcend these various layers of messages – and if I hadn’t thought about the book in more detail when putting together this post, I might very well have been one of those readers -, they may easily escape unnoticed. In that case, The Orphan Master’s Son would reduced to a highly readable adventure story with an unconventional background.
German title: Das geraubte Leben des Waisen Jun Do
Spanish title: no translation yet