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The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson: book review by Nyomi Anderson

The Orphan Master’s Son is Stanford University Professor Adam Johnson’s second novel. The publicity around its publication earlier this year was heightened following the death of Kim Jong Il, one of the book’s characters and the head of the country where it is set: North Korea. The novel follows Jun Do, the neglected son of a man who runs an orphanage in the town of Chongjin. The reader is given a brief picture of Jun Do’s upbringing before joining when he is a grown man and agent of the state, who once built tunnels under the DMZ and now leads kidnapping missions to Japan.

The first half of the book is a largely episodic series of events that are meant to introduce Jun Do and describe how he came to be imprisoned. Given that Jun Do’s situation and his missing mother are referenced in the book’s title, and occasionally throughout the book, his upbringing is covered in surprisingly little detail. The reader is clearly meant to sympathise and connect with this character, yet he is not fully developed, and in fact seems to carry out his duties with little reflection. Jun Do the adult does not seem to retain an awareness that he had as a child of his unique situation and subjugation; he goes from a child who has clearly suffered at the hands of the state to one who obediently does its bidding. Jun Do seems as passive an observer as the reader during his kidnapping missions:

They threw her over the rail. She fell away silent, not a word or even the snatching of a breath. Jun Do saw something flash in her eyes, though – it wasn’t fear or the senselessness of it. He could tell she was thinking of her parents and how they’d never know what became of her.

Following this passage the author simply goes on to describe the events at hand, and these observations do not seem to affect Jun Do’s actions as he is said to continue to carry out these kidnappings for several years afterward. He later joins a naval crew as an English translator and following some hijinks on the high seas, Jun Do’s next episode is a diplomatic mission to visit a Senator in Texas. This bizarre affair ultimately leads to Jun Do’s temporary arrest and imprisonment, but is really just an excuse for some inter-cultural mishaps.

© AP Photo/David Guttenfelder

The second half of the novel, though it sets a linear plot in motion, was both unconvincing and confusing, and it was difficult to distinguish the characters’ motivations. An account of stolen identities, coincidental meetings and dramatic escapes, the story is more farcical than gripping. This effect is augmented by the second half’s narrative structure, which switches between the third-person voice of the first half, the first-person perspective of Jun Do’s interrogator, and the voice of the propagandist loudspeakers installed in every North Korean home. The loudspeakers tell parts of the story as if it was a fictional tale meant to teach a lesson to citizens, as any state media would. This is a clever satirical device that highlights the dichotomy between the propaganda and reality, but also further undermines the gravity of the intervening pages.

I found The Orphan Master’s Son to be more interesting as a series of snippets of life in North Korea than as the cinematic political thriller it seems to think it is. These details—such as when Jun Do recognises that the shadowy figures moving through a nearby cemetery are starving residents who collect flowers left at graves to eat them—convincingly colour the book’s scene with the myriad tactics, evasions and negotiations that characterize life under authoritarianism. However, whether this depiction is even half accurate is up for debate. The authoritative James Church at 38 North claims the book offers very little insight into daily life in North Korea. He rightly points out that it was marketed as a window into the DPRK, especially given that its publication happened to fall not long after the death Kim Jong Il.

© Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

On some level, almost any literary depiction of North Korea should be welcomed given the singular tone of any literature produced in the country. It’s a heart-wrenching fact that no work is published there that is not a state-sanctioned tool, a revolutionary “weapon for struggle”. As Words Without Borders, a group that aims to translate and publish lesser-known works of international literature, has noted, they can not locate any North Korean publication, fiction or non-fiction, that does not explicitly glorify Kim Il Sung or champion the wonders of socialism. In an interview, Johnson calls Kim Jong Il “the great script writer” of North Korea, referring to its citizens’ inability to tell their own stories. His novel, then, boils down to a question of articulation—since they cannot speak for themselves, should North Koreans be spoken for? As a New York Times review points out, Johnson has admitted feeling a sense of responsibility for his subject and the novel clearly intends to convey this. It is therefore curious that Johnson’s attempt at articulation should come across as dispassionately as it does. While some reviews disagree and find the story moving, by trying to be both an exciting novel and a humanist exercise, The Orphan Master’s Son ends up much less than the sum of its parts.