Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review: The Orphan Master's Son

By Adam Johnson
Random House. 464 pp. $26

It is likely that you’ve never read a novel set in North Korea. A novel could never emerge from within the totalitarian regime, and the country is only open to outsiders for a few weeks per year. Furthermore, with little cultural tradition of storytelling, few novels have been written by those who have been able to escape the country.

All of this makes Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son fascinating, important, and almost wholly original. Johnson was able to travel to North Korea during one of the “open” periods, but at a reading that I attended, he said that he found the majority of the material for the novel through research. During his visit, he was able to see Pyongyang and the surrounding area, but he certainly was not able to see the work camps or prison camps which appear in his novel. Indeed, the novel includes descriptions of imprisonment, torture, hunger, and the day-to-day terror of living under a totalitarian regime. And yet, the novel is not overly dark. Indeed, the darkness that exists is easy to bear amidst the brilliant, captivating story.

The novel has two parts: the story of Pak Jun Do, “the orphan master’s son” and the story of Commander Ga, national hero, husband of the beautiful movie star Sun Moon, and winner of the “Golden Belt” in taekwondo.  

Jun Do -- note that his name sounds like “John Doe” -- is raised in orphanage, where all the orphans are given a name of one of the Grand Martyrs of the Revolution. He is eventually assigned to serve in the tunnels beneath the demilitarized zone.  From there, his fighting and night vision skills allow him to become a professional kidnapper; language skills that he gains as a kidnapper allow him to become a radio operator and translator; and finally he is assigned to a diplomatic team which embarks on a trip to Texas. Upon returning in failure, he is sent to a prison mine facility.

One thing that becomes obvious in Johnson’s novel (and which shouldn’t be too surprising): in North Korea there is little personal identity. The State comes before the person. Yet, Johnson confronts this notion and challenges it. In Commander Ga’s portion of the story, he is interrogated regarding the disappearance of his wife, who the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il is in love with. The interrogator creates biographies of all of the people who he confronts, saying, “When you have a subject’s biography, there is nothing between the citizen and the state. That’s harmony, that’s the idea out nation is founded on.” But doesn’t a biography serve to humanize a person? And because the people in question have been suspected of some crime against the State, doesn’t this humanization seem to runs counter to the supremacy of the State?

It is questions like this that simmer beneath the surface of the narrative. Like any excellent novel, The Orphan Master’s Son can be read on more than one level. If you simply want to read a story set a real place that you have not read about before, read the book, get an amazing glimpse of North Korea, and stop there. But if you enjoy a narrative that truly makes you think, Johnson’s novel provides a challenge. In the second part of the book, there are three different voices, including the voice of propaganda broadcasts though a “speaker” installed in all homes; the narrative moves forwards and backwards in time; and it requires some patience. But it’s worth the effort. In the shifting narrative, Johnson forces readers to question what is real and what is not real within the context of the story.

It is an amazing coincidence that Random House had already scheduled the novel for release when Kim Jong Il died in December. If the news coverage raised your curiosity about North Korea, read this remarkable novel. Yes, it is fiction, but Johnson obviously did careful research, in addition to his first-hand experiences.  After you read this, if you crave more, find a non-fictional account. I think I will.

**Please note: I found this novel very challenging. I make no claim to have gotten everything correct, but I hope that I did not mislead. If anyone who has read the book feels like I have erred, I welcome your comments.**


  1. I just wish he had given it a better title. The [profession's] [relative] (Thanks, Jen, for broadening me from the wife/daughter limitation) is SO SO played out that it makes me not want to read the book.

  2. I didn't think of it until you brought it up, but the title is not only weak, but it is also not really descriptive of the story, at all. First, (MINOR SPOILER) it is not clear that Jun Do is the "orphan master's son." He may merely think that he is because of perceived special treatment by the orphan master. In fact, it doesn't matter. Once he leaves the orphanage and starts serving the State, it doesn't matter who his father is. Furthermore, the first part of the novel, titled "The Biography of Jun Do," comprises only about 1/3 of the whole. The story of Commander Ga, which without giving away major spoilers, is "informed" by Jun Do's story, comprises the rest.

    I also didn't do a very good job at articulating the complexity of the novel. I didn't feel that I could do so without revealing elements which I enjoyed discovering on my own, and which I feel that all readers should discover on their own. This is a perfect book not to judge by it's name.

  3. I listened to the audio version of this book and found this to be very effective in distinquishing the story's characters since the story was told from several different voices and often alternated from the past to the present. This was a book I would appreciate reading twice to catch some of the more subtle nuances such as (spoiler alert) the pictures coming over the "secret" camera. I enjoyed the book immensely and would highly recommend the audio version. The only thing I can think of better than that would be the movie!