Submitted by Murder by the Book, Portland, Oregon, www.mbtb.com
The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson
Random House, 480 pages, $15
A place NOT on my travel bucket list? North Korea. Especially after reading The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. Fiction is not stranger than fact, although Johnson certainly depicts North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in an unflattering light and wearing the quirks and eccentricities of a leader with unlimited power. Johnson, in an interview with author Richard Powers added to the end of the book, said that if he had written about some of the odd things Kim had done for real, it would have made his book into a comic parody.
Pak Jun Do (not his real name) dominates the first half of the book. Commander Ga (not his real name either) tells his story in the second half.
Although Pak is the son of the head of the orphanage, he is treated as an orphan. As a boy he was responsible for naming the orphans after North Korean martyrs before sending them off to miserable fates. He, too, adopted the name of a martyr, Pak Jun Do. While he grew up with his real father in the orphanage, he was often mistaken for an orphan. Pak's denials become more rote and meaningless, as people throughout his life continue to mistake him for one. His mother, he remembers -- or is it fantasy? -- was an opera singer. Eventually, his real early life fades into the background as he's forced to end one life to create another identity. The backdrop for Pak's story is the North Korean Communist state and its "Big Brother" mentality. In his desire and search for identity, he is forever at the mercy of the state.
The first half of the book concerns the ups and downs of Pak's life. Pak’s role as a kidnapper, language school student, spy agent on a fishing ship, and prisoner in a North Korean gulag highlights Johnson’s thesis about the arbitrary fate of a North Korean citizen. Most of it is spent avoiding notice. Once having attracted notice, however, the capricious nature of the state can elevate, honor, and award a citizen or throw him into a hellhole without mercy or reason. Pak finds himself on such an up-and-down journey.
In an interlude worthy of the best comically improbable situations of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard, Pak and some newly minted acquaintances journey as representatives of North Korea to Texas. From barbeque to dogs-as-pets, it's America through the eyes of a travel virgin, and it's touching and bizarre, bizarre because of both the Koreans and the Texans. To honor Johnson's intentions, it's obvious that this is just a small part of the tender and terrifying story that is Pak's journey.
The second part of the book tells the tale of Commander Ga, war hero, taekwondo champion, and Director of the Prison Mines. Is it really Commander Ga or Pak in another incarnation? Ga's wife, Sun Moon, is a famous actress and the pet of "The Great Leader," Kim Jong Il. In the first part of the book, the genesis of Pak's fascination with Sun Moon is described when the captain of the fishing ship crudely tattoos her portrait on Pak's chest. Eventually, Pak laments that the only image he can see is a reverse image in the mirror; he can never see the true Sun Moon. The thought of her soothes him through onerous times. But if Pak has mysteriously become Commander Ga, is he now a tool of the state or has something extraordinary happened to him? In slowly uncovered stages, Johnson reveals the metamorphosis. The answer is not supernatural or outrageous, but Johnson's narrative has a fantastical touch to it.
Although the story bounces around among the first-person narratives of Pak, Ga, and an anonymous police interrogator, and state-scripted declamations blasted from speakers to the North Korean population, the story is cohesive. This is a thoughtful, illuminating, imaginative work.
The orphan master's son may not have his own name, but in the end he has an identity.