Monday, March 5, 2012

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON” by Adam Johnson (Doubleday/ Random House $39:99)            

There is absolutely no way that recounting the bare “plot” of a novel can convey the texture, quality and flavour of that novel. After all, there are only so many story-arcs to go around, and any of them could be used for purposes serious or frivolous.

I begin this way because Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son is structured around a story-line that has usually been the basis for entertaining thrillers or adventure stories. But it would be hard to define The Orphan Master’s Son as either thriller or adventure story.

This is the one about the undistinguished individual who, by a fluke, takes the place of a powerful figure whom he vaguely resembles. He is regarded by at least some people as an improvement on the original. Think Alexandre Dumas’ fiction The Man in the Iron Mask. Think Anthony Hope’s Ruritanian romance The Prisoner of Zenda. Think Akira Kurosawa’s historical movie Kagemusha. And yet when you’ve done all this thinking, realize that The Orphan Master’s Son is much more serious in intent. It couldn’t help being so. It is set in North Korea, and much of the American novelist’s  purpose is to recreate the reality of that closed, oppressive and severely delusional totalitarian society.

To deal with the specifics of the plot first. Pak Jun Do is a low-level North Korean spy. Installed with radio equipment in a North Korean fishing vessel, he goes out on expeditions in the Sea of Japan to pick up and analyse American, Japanese and Russian radio traffic. Sometimes the North Korean fishermen are given the task of kidnapping people from lonely Japanese beaches. Once or twice they encounter American patrol vessels, and then they realize they have to make up heroic stories of these encounters to satisfy North Korean propaganda when they return home.

As he is the supposed hero of one such story, Jun Do (yes, his name is meant to sound like the archetypal Everyman John Doe) is chosen to be part of a diplomatic mission to America. In Texas, however, because of a tattoo he is wearing, he is mistaken by his American hosts for the high-level North Korean minister and military figure Commander Ga. When he gets back to North Korea, he is punished for his presumption in playing the role of his superior.

He is sent to toil in the mines.

But – and here’s the main twist – when the real Commander Ga comes to inspect the mines, Jun Do is able to take his place permanently. Jun Do becomes Commander Ga and gets to live the life of one of North Korea’s tiny inner-party privileged class. He installs himself in the Pyongyang apartment of Commander Ga’s wife, the movie star Sun Moon, whom he worships from all the propaganda movies he’s seen her in. And, though a little surprised, the actress gradually accepts him as her husband. After all, in North Korea it is taken for granted that personal relationships are supervised entirely by the state. If the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il and his cronies have decided that she should have a replacement husband, then she accepts the replacement husband without complaint.

This synopsis does not indulge in “spoilers” and takes us only about halfway through the novel. There are many more plot developments to come. The first half of The Orphan Master’s Son is called “The Biography of Jun Do” and the second half is called “The Confessions of Commander Ga”.

Adam Johnson’s thematic purpose in spinning such a plot is fairly transparent. Jun Do’s new life is obviously a lie – a deception. But then, as depicted here, North Korea is built on deception. Nothing is what it seems to be, and the state devotes much effort trying to convince the populace that things are the exact opposite of what they really are.

Apartments blare with propaganda broadcasts which cannot be turned off. When foreigners are visiting, the equivalent of Potemkin villages are constructed to persuade them that the proletarian and peasant masses want for nothing. Denunciation of others is a common way of gaining such meagre social advancement as is available. There is an extensive network of punishment camps amounting to a gulag. And yet people know they are living a lie, know their country is impoverished and starving, and know that they have to speak in code if they are to survive. Having been so often told, by the official propaganda machine, that South Korea is on the verge of collapse and that America is constantly planning an imperialist invasion, these two countries exercise a huge fascination in the minds of North Koreans. At least part of Adam Johnson’s purpose is to remind us that people enduring a totalitarian regime are still people, still think and feel and have minds of their own, even if their survival depends on strict outward conformity to the state.

For such a grim subject, Adam Johnson’s style of often playful. He juggles a number of different narrative voices, including the thoughts of one of the secret police’s interrogators and various summaries of his own plot in the style of North Korean propaganda broadcasts. Irony, carried right through to the novel’s closing pages, sits in the disparity between the grandiloquent language of such broadcasts and the sordid realities they mask. There is further irony in the way the plots of Sun Moon’s propaganda movies are recounted. They are crude fables intended for a public which has no other approved entertainments; and yet it is easy to see how they would have real emotional power for people who have seen nothing better.

Johnson is very good at penetrating the mindset of people who, at heart, understand their deprived condition and yet want to believe there is some truth and purpose in the lives they are forced to live. This theme is signalled early in the novel, when Jun Do has been working in one of the tunnels that North Korea pushes through the DMZ to spy on South Korea. Some of his fellow tunnellers are only too eager to be chosen to go above ground and see what the forbidden South is like. But not Jun Do. The novelist says  “He wanted no part of it – he was scared that if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who had gone blind  with hunger? That would have been for nothing. Sending another boy instead of himself to clean vats at the paint factory? For nothing.”

Johnson is also aware that, in a state which acknowledges no morality but sheer power, reality itself is defined by those who can inflict pain. At one point, indicating his own head, the interrogator tells one of his victims “There is no such thing as facts. In my world, all the answers you need to know come from here.” Spoken like a true postmodernist! (And spoken very much like 1984’s O’Brien of the Inner Party telling Winston Smith that he can make him believe 2 plus 2 equals 5). Much later, the same interrogator gives some bizarre reflections on the “professionalism” his craft shares with other closed states:-“It is true how much we are at a disadvantage from not having female interrogators. Vietnam was a pioneer in that department, and look at the great strides made by nations like Chechnya and Yemen. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka used women exclusively for this purpose…

One major point of the novel is the enforced infantilisation of the population. It is a great historical irony that, while Communism was supposedly dedicated to the abolition of class and the complete equality of all people, without exception all Communist states have been run by small and exclusive power elites answerable to nobody but themselves. When we get glimpses of the “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il’s inner circle, we have an obsequious bunch laughing obediently at all his unfunny jokes and pranks, like courtiers of Stalin or Caligula or Nero. But this system generates psychological dependence in the population at large. Thinking of democratic and pluralistic countries, the actress Sun Moon is genuinely puzzled when she asks “How does a society without a fatherly leader work? How can a citizen know what is best without a benevolent hand to shepherd her? Isn’t that endurance – learning how to navigate such a realm alone? Isn’t that survival?” Even if you are a thinking and feeling person, to be the subject of a totalitarian state means to surrender your will, and all essential decisions in life, to others.

As should be clear from everything I’ve written here, I find Johnson’s version of North Korea persuasive and accept his strategy of playfulness to heighten our sense of disgust. There are some moments when his Americanness becomes intrusive. Is he indulging in wishful thinking when he has the North Korean actress changing her whole attitude after seeing a bootleg DVD copy of Casablanca? Such episodes seem to succumb to a Hollywood view of the world.

Even so, the novel’s documentary element seems credible.

But at some point we have to ask how much the novel itself conforms to reality. Can an American (teacher of creative writing at Stanford University) really give us an accurate account of a country which is fiendishly difficult to enter, let alone to observe in detail? The credits at the end of the novel suggest he can. The Orphan Master’s Son is the product of much real research, much conversation with Koreans (from North and South), plus at least one visit the author was able to make to Pyongyang.

It might be presumptuous to write about a country other than one’s own. But as free expression is not permitted in a dictatorship, novels like The Orphan Master’s Son are probably the closest we can get to diagnosing North Korea’s ills. 


  1. Getting hired as an in-house critic can provide steady income and an ever-increasing portfolio. From this point, some people who have worked hard to become a book critic will choose to stay in the field, while others may go on to work with publishing agencies as development personnel or literary agents.

    1. This is an interesting but rather opaque comment. To which posting is it a response? This blog is certainly not in-house criticism.