The stories we tell create our truth. And in North Korea, the stories told by their Dear Leader are the only stories that matter, at least, according to Adam Johnson. One day, someone can be one person, and then suddenly, their story is changed, and the next day they are someone else entirely. As one character puts it,
“Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.”
This, of course, makes for great fiction. Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son takes its reader on a journey through modern day North Korea—a place that is, in Johnson’s mind, dictated by fear and depravity, brutal violence and brainwashing. If the North Korea of today is true to the North Korea depicted in the book, then it is far worse than I had imagined from my comfortable spot here in the U.S. Of note, Mr. Johnson’s research for this novel involved firsthand testimony from defectors, and visiting North Korea himself. He is not a Korean novelist.*
Set in the recent past, (Kim Jong-il is the ruler) the story ostensibly follows Pak Jun Do, (John Doe[?]) a man who grew up in the orphanage his father operated. When we meet Jun Do as an adult, he has become a professional kidnapper for the state, which involves some early gruesome images and unspeakable violence. His only levity comes while at sea on a fishing boat; late at night he takes to listening to a haunting voice emanating over the radio waves: two American women rowing around the world, one of them singing while she rows through the night. We learn quickly just how backwards his world is. There is a constant fear of Americans prepared to “sneak attack” the country. Images of the wives of men are tattooed on their chest. There is no “I,” there is only “we” and there is a defined fear that comes from believing otherwise. North Korea is perfect, a land of plenty, as long as that story continues to be told. When one character chooses to defect by leaving the fishing boat in a life raft stacked with cans of food, everyone else on the ship must make up a horrific story, lest they all be sent to prison camp for allowing a member of their team to leave. All of these examples give you just a small sense of the world these characters live in.
There is an almost obligatory sense of detachment throughout the entire novel. This is because Johnson (rightly so) does not romanticize the story by adding many deep relationships, friendships, or love scenes (with the exception of one, which feels necessary after 300+ pages where we suffer through beatings and starvation and countless other terrible things). We never really have a character we’re rooting for, and there is only some breathing room offered towards the end, when we have very small moments of light shining through the cast of immense weightiness. There are stomach-churning scenes of torture. We become nauseated by the lies being perpetuated over the loudspeaker set up in every North Korean home, the stories that become truths and shape every citizen’s life. Johnson includes very little sensory description, making the writing straightforward to (at times) a detriment. All I could picture was gray, gray, gray. Does the sun even shine there? Not in Johnson’s mind.
From the fishing boat back to North Korea, where the story of how the friend was lost (now in a brutal attack that involved both the U.S. Navy and a shark) becomes a lived truth for Jun Do, to a brief encounter in America, in the grand state of Texas (which is the most ridiculous part of the novel and still confuses me why a State Senator and a few other “officials” would be meeting with North Korean “officials” by themselves), back to North Korea and an out-of-your-nightmares hospital where the dying are drained of their blood (so it can be sold, of course), to a break in the narrative and time passing at a prison camp so brutal that the punishment for attempting to escape is to be buried up to your waist while every single prisoner whips rocks at you. After all of this, we enter the second half of the book, where Jun Do emerges with an entirely new identity. How is this possible? Because the Dear Leader says it is so.
More sickening brutality ensues; the interrogator we come to know in the second half explains a prison camp that uses lobotomies performed with a 20-centimeter nail in order to maintain prisoner complacency, there is a pain machine that promises the most painful death of all: “We ramp up the pain to inconceivable levels, a shifting, muscular river of pain. Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity—the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins the crossing.”Gah.
The second half of the book is the bulk of the major narrative, and we finally meet Sun Moon, the nation’s actress, plucked into stardom by Kim Jong-il himself. We have a direct encounter with the Dear Leader. There are strange references to the film Casablanca. There is a somewhat chaotic end, and eventually, we come to understand the fates of all the characters we’ve learned to (somewhat) care for. It all goes on a bit too long.
There are moments when a characters’ humanity peaks through the heavy cover of political compliance. There are sparks of individualism: the love Jun Do begins to feel for the widow of the defected second mate, the pleading of Sun Moon to Commander Ga to come with her and her children to America, the comfort of hearing a female rower sing in the night, as her voice plays softly over the airwaves, the interrogator whose one goal is to document the histories of those he must kill, so that their stories are not forgotten. It’s these moments Johnson attempts to remind us that even through the mask of an upside-down world, we’re all human.
The book is good, in the sense that it’s structurally sound, tells an interesting narrative, and is fascinating in its ability to imagine a world most of us know very little about. If you can get through the brutal, gut-sickening violence, it’s worth a read. What Johnson does not skimp on are the too-insane-to-be-true details. And he’s an undramatic writer (at least on a line-by-line basis). If you’re looking for a novel with great language, poetic sentences, and beautiful sensory details, this is not the one for you. But if you’re ready to be taken to a totally new world that is (scarily) not the stuff of science fiction, if you’re ready to be confronted with the reality of an entire nation that the rest of the world is still powerless to do anything about, read this book. Though maybe at times a bit gratuitous–but who knows?– The Oprhan Master’s Son is worth the read.
*If you’re keeping tabs, note that yes, I broke my own rule by reading a white, male author. I justify this in that a) it’s a book club pick and this is a democracy and b) the characters I’m met with are not all white people, so that helps.