Timing matters. Two years ago, a spectacular book movingly described conditions in repressive North Korea. The stunning
Nothing to Envy was nominated for the National Book Award, but despite critical acclaim, the book sadly didn’t make any inroads onto the bestseller lists. Now, two years later, a work of literary fiction, The Orphan Master's Son, is here to make amends. It helps things along that the book so happened to be released right around the time of the death of the country’s longstanding dictator, Kim Jong Il.
The Orphan Master's Son in the title is Pak Jun Do, who spends his childhood in an orphanage; his father is its head. His mother is shipped off to Pyongyang, where all the beauties go to serve the North Korean leadership elite. Jun Do forever lives in the shadow of that shame and longing for his mother, a woman whom he barely remembers but from a searing incident from his early childhood. At an early age, Jun Do figures out what it takes to get ahead in life: it’s a case of survival of the fittest. As he grows up, Jun Do is recruited to be a fisherman who kidnaps unsuspecting Japanese citizens on the sly. After some success at a language institute, he then moves on to manipulating broadcast signals tailored for the outside world.
The book traces Jun Do’s path from these relative humble beginnings to the point where he is mingling with the country’s super-elite. Jun Do is sent on a national diplomatic mission to Texas, where he gets a glimpse of what life on the other side of the iron curtain is like. Here he also manages to pick up a DVD of the classic Casablanca, a movie that moves him deeply and one he can readily relate to. Jun Do also eventually gains access to the woman he loves, the incredibly beautiful national actress Sun Moon, and even to the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il.
Author Adam Johnson, a professor of creative writing at Stanford University, visited North Korea for research on this book and it shows. The country comes alive through the people it portrays, and the horrors the regime subjects its citizens to—where the layperson is scared to voice his feelings even to his own family—are on full display here. The Orphan Master's Son uses interesting creative devices to narrate Jun Do’s story. Much of it, for instance, is told from the perspective of a government employee Jun Do meets in his end days, a person who uses a special torture device called “autopilot” to administer intense pain to citizens the government thinks have fallen out of line with the national narrative. This different perspective is also useful because it affords us glimpses into the life of an average citizen.
The Orphan Master's Son has some pretty vivid scenes of torture, and even the daily straitjacketed lives of the citizens are hard to imagine. Despite its darkness, the fact that the book is fiction might be its ready escape. After all, you can’t really tell which horror is made up and which one is not. Yet it is precisely this aspect of the book—that it is fiction—that is also its problem. It is easy for the reader to glaze over the horrors not knowing just how much of it is based on actual fact.
In the end, it is to Johnson’s credit that he has delivered a masterful novel which is sure to find a wide audience. Stories such as these deserve that reach. If you can stomach it, read Nothing to Envy as well, to get a comprehensive look at the country. Demick’s portrayal of real North Korean citizens remains indelible, and Johnson’s novel is a fitting complement to that masterful work.
In one of many moving scenes in The Orphan Master's Son, the actress Sun Moon is blown away by the glimpse of the life she sees in Casablanca. The regimented life she has led thus far, she knows, is a lie, played out in black and white per some external authority. “My whole life is a lie,” she cries. “Every last gesture. To think I acted in color, every garish detail captured in color.”
It is no surprise that Jun Do’s favorite movie is Casablanca—the greatest movie ever made, he says. The overriding theme of the movie—that of personal sacrifice—is a principle that Jun Do lives by even if it might lead to his eventual unraveling.
“In America, people’s stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters,” writes Johnson. Contrast this to North Korea, where what mattered was not the man, but his story. “If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.” As Jun Do finds out, any North Korean man can be made pliable enough to fit into a narrative already laid out for him.