As I read defectors’ oral histories, each one of them more heartbreaking than the last, a sense of duty filled me. I abandoned all the true-but-loony material about the Dear Leader, which though real, made the work too farcical; instead, I decided to tell the story of a single average citizen who came of age during the famine.
Raised in the Long Tomorrows orphanage, Pak Jun Do believes himself to be the son of the Orphan Master, rather than a common castoff – why else would he be singled out for extra punishments all his life? (This is just the first of many ingenious, subtle falsities within that twist and re-form the storyline in the hands of its characters.) In the wake of a massive national famine, Jun Do joins the army at age 14, becoming a tunnel soldier in the ongoing battle with the South over the DMZ. After 8 years of this, he is brought out of the darkness & conscripted to perform clandestine kidnappings of Japanese citizens for the State. Then, just as mysteriously, the kidnappings come to an end, Jun Do is taught English, and he is sent out to sea on a fishing boat where he listens to intercepted American radio transmissions.
It’s best not to question the workings of the North Korean state, so just go with the flow here.
From there, Jun Do is sent to Texas, of all places, as part of a mysterious diplomatic mission – which goes horribly, predictably wrong, mostly due to the duplicitous nature of the Korean delegation, such as they are. Regardless, for his part in the failed mission, Jun Do is sent to languish in a prison mine for the rest of his days. It is at this point that the narration gets tilted on its axis and becomes something else entirely.
Believe it or not, this describes merely the first third of The Orphan Master’s Son – a sprawling, multi-layered exposé of life behind the walls of one of the world’s most guarded nations. Wait, there’s more. At some point, while in prison, Jun Do assumes the identity of one Commander Ga – a revered national hero & a fearsome rival to Kim Jong-il himself.
“He was the winner of the Golden Belt in taekwondo. They said he rid the military of homosexuals.”
As Commander Ga, Jun Do’s story becomes a fiction within the fiction – one of false identities, deceits, and negotiating the labyrinthine corridors of Kim Jong-il’s government. Jun manages to escape prison as Ga – and even though no one truly believes that he is actually the Commander, he inserts himself into Ga’s life, moving in with his famous actress wife, Sun Moon (whom Jun Do has another connection to) and living Ga’s life as if it were his own. This is all about survival, in the end, whether for himself or for those he cares for – the goal, all along, is to depart from the horrors of his homeland, one way or another. In one of the more ingenious narrative twists, in between the unfurling of “Ga’s” story, we are given State propaganda broadcasts which counter & romanticize what we know has actually occurred. A fiction within the fiction, as it were – lies told about the liar.
As complicated as this all sounds, Johnson eases you into every element of it – laying every evolution out as plainly as he can, almost as a natural progression. Of course Jun Do is sent to Texas – why not? Of course he can assume the identity of a man whose face is known to every citizen in the whole country – why not? Jun Do himself evolves from innocent bystander in his own life to a major player on a national scale, bringing us along with him. And while Kim Jong-il is certainly the wizard pulling levers behind the curtain and his presence is felt behind every conversation and every decision made, the story is never specifically about him. Johnson successfully avoids falling into the satirical trap, focusing on what life in a fear state run by a puppet master madman must truly be like. Eventually, Kim is exposed as the fallible, short-sighted, lunatic dictator that we know him to be, opening a brief window for Jun Do. Even so, at its heart the novel is really all about the people who suffer in the wake of Kim’s crazy – the citizens who live in fear under his iron hand, never even daring to try for a better life away from North Korea.
In the end, through simple storytelling on Adam Johnson’s part, we are no longer jaded, Western observers of CNN reports on political maneuverings – we have witnessed (albeit in a fictional form) what life is like for the citizens of today’s North Korea. And it ain’t good. But there is always hope – and that hope is what drives this remarkable story along.