The Orphan Master’s Son
by Adam Johnson (Pulitzer)
2012/443 pages (Kindle)
rating (9+ tent)/ contemp fiction
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Started one time and got really frustrated. Started over again on 9/20 and it’s working this time. Pak Jun Do is the young 1st person North Korean protagonist. He was raised in an orphanage not because he has no living parents, but because his father is the orphan master and his mother, a singer, has run away. The famine, or Arduous March, occurred between 1994
and 1998 and that’s when the main plot starts. The book opens with the news as broadcast over the intercom.
I suppose this is to put us US readers into a North Korean frame of mind – help us to create a mental setting – a world, really – because it’s very different there.
Part 1 of 2 parts. “The Biography of Jun Do” is the story of how young Jun Do went from living at the orphanage with his father to being a tunnel soldier, “trained in the art of zero-light combat.” He was “promoted” to pirate and kidnapper (procurer for the State). After a few trial runs, he and the translator on this mission snatch a female singer from Japan as Jun Do imagines someone did to his mother. Jun Do prevents the translator from defecting. He does this for several years
after which he was transferred to “language school” to learn English – but only transcribing, never speaking. Then he was assigned to “listen” on a fishing vessel.
He was spying but never heard anything interesting. The North Korean technology seems to have been about at the level of 1930s radio and receiver abilities. The vessel went into Japanese waters, was intercepted by an American vessel. The Americans let them go but in a condition which would mean doom for the men had not Jun Do been quick thinking about a cover story to give to the authorities when they got back. The Second Mate gets the status of official “Hero” for his part. Jun Do is given nothing until he gets back to the ship with his mates. There’s a scene where the Second Mate visits him where he’s staying and they talk about wives and ghosts.
What’s it about? It’s about being an orphan with no home, no love, no being a “part of.” It’s about listening in on others. But underneath that several ideas are woven in layers to play out. And the name “Jun Do” could be a fictionalized version of John Doe – any common man.
“What about the people left behind?” (p. 46) and that idea repeats itself. Jun Do was left behind by his mother, the bar girls left people behind. The singer they kidnapped left people behind. The fishermen left people – mostly wives- behind. Fishermen had to be married so their wives would serve as collateral when they were left behind. Some took lovers. The wives sometimes look like needy adoptees – if they’re not married it’s not good.
The idea of ghosts also fits here – not necessarily dead people – just out of range – like the Captain’s wife or the American women rowing around the world, heard but not seen – (p. 69) or Jun Do’s mother.
Another theme seems to be a metaphor of darkness. Jun Do learned how to move and fight in complete darkness – later he wonders what one thinks about “what is out there” if one has never seen it. Korea is in darkness.
The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you. (p. 15)
He’d seen the sea in the daylight, been upon it countless times, but what if he hadn’t? What might a person think was out there in the unfathomably grand darkness that lay ahead? (K. p. 66)
A third theme might be:
“… people do things to survive, and then after they survive, they can’t live with what they’ve done.” (p. 68)
In The Orphan Master’s Son this idea fits with the idea of loyalty. Jun Do’s name is from Korean martyr number seventy-six, Pac Jun Do who hung himself to prove his loyalty. Being an orphan, Jun Do is regularly suspected of being incapable or ignorant of loyalty.
This is an intense, dark and compelling read. I’m curious how an American boy, Adam Johnson of South Dakota and Arizona, came to write it. Of course, that could be “Jon Son” but probably not – this is how he did his research – an interview with the San Francisco Weekly
When it’s time to go back to the ship, refurbished of course, Jun Do is given a tattoo on his chest so that he can look like a married fisherman to the non-North Koreans. It’s of Sun Moon, a film star and General Ga’s wife and the Captain, who gave Jun Do the tattoo relates the story of General Ga and Sun-Moon – (a wife) – and the dark, and alone, and an American woman rowing around the world to whom Jun Do has listened. She’s rows at night, toward the dawn while her rowing partner, also female rows in the daytime.
The Second Mate deserts in the life-raft they’ve been given. Now the crew is really in trouble and they concoct a story by which Jun Do is bitten by sharks while trying to save the Second Mate who dies. Jun Do is made to have his arm bitten by a shark – loyalty you know. When they get back Jun Do is questioned and the old man (2nd time for him) a war hero from the Korean War, is hard – brutal – but there’s the idea of the dark again and …
Theme 4: Pain – yes. Emotional, mental and physical pain is a definite theme – and maybe ways of dying – physical, mental and emotional – possibly spiritual.
And then there’s survival, another theme winding its way through this novel. It seems everyone has to do what is necessary to survive, that includes about everything one can imagine and even then for many it isn’t enough.
Jun Do recuperates and is helped by Second Mate’s wife, is visited by the
captain. He’s very suspicious now. For some reason (his “reward” and translating skills) he’s assigned to accompany a negotiating group to Texas. The Americans include a Senator and his wife, and a CIA agent (?) among others. The agent gives Jun Do a small satellite connected camera. This is a hugely funny section of the book. But while there he’s mistaken by the Americans for Commander Ga so when he returns he’s put into a seriously bad camp – a death camp. End of Part 1, The Biography of Jun Do.
Part 2 – “The Confessions of Commander Ga: One Year Later.” Instead of dying Jun Do simply ceases to exist and a different Commander Ga comes to wear the uniform and badges as well as be married to Sun Moon. This transpires with the help of an old woman named Mongnan he survives and becomes Ga instead of dying.
The story is now told from two narrators, one is an unnamed 1st person investigator/narrator who is writing the official biography of Commander Ga. He uses various methods of interrogation but they are more humane than what has gone before him. The other voice is that of a 3rd person omniscient narrator relating the thinking of Commander Ga – it alternates between the stories of the investigator, a young man who cares for his aging parents, and Commander Ga’s memories. And there a few “News” pages along the way – to remind us we’re in North Korea and to give us the “official” version of Commander Ga’s adventures. The chronology is not linear here – as befits the story. This structure works beautifully, enhancing the difference between the characters and a picture of North Korea.
Theme 5: Another theme really needs to be mentioned here and that is the theme of stories, reality vs fiction and whose story is it, why is it being told, what are the stories we tell close others, ourselves, the world? This falls in with truth vs untruth or lies – is the truth always the best? Was Jun Do’s father really his father? It gets complex.
The stories so far range from Jun Do’s original narrative, the stories they tell the investigators, the stories the government tells the people via the “news” and movies and government agents and the stories the investigators make up about their victims – their may be more. And speaking of movies, there are times that the whole of North Korea seems like a big movie set complete with set design and “property room.” (p. 325)
The American rower has been captured, she’s apparently killed her companion.
For some reason at this point when the investigator/biographer is interrogating Commander Ga, Sun Moon and her children are missing and presumed dead. The investigator wants to know what happened. He wants to know many things. They have clues as to how it all came down, a can of peaches, the house, etc, but interrogating Ga is the main thing.
Related to the theme of “what happens to those left behind?” is “Where do those who disappear go?” Where is Jun Do’s mother? Where do the retired people really go? Ga disappears – it’s thought that he’s dead, but is he really?
The Americans are coming and Ga plans that he, Sun Moon and the children should escape but can they? We know that in the present time the investigator has him so it’s apparent that Ga doesn’t get away. But what has happened to the woman and her children?
Suddenly the idea of the Stockholm Syndrome comes up – not as itself, only as a syndrome affecting women who fall in love with captors due to protection and food, shelter, children, and then ration cards. It seems all of Korea is under the effects of a kind of Stockholm syndrome and their “Dear Leader,” who provides everything for them. How in the world can they survive in America, Sun Moon asks the American rower who is held by the Dear Leader in his bunker.
Both Ga and the investigator have interactions or dreams of snakes. The snake represents regeneration or rebirth or cyclical in some cultures but I don’t know if that’s true of Korea. It does fit the themes though as Ga seems to have been reborn from his life as Jun Do and it looks ominous for the investigator.
Characters – because the novel seems a bit episodic in nature, there aren’t really a whole lot of major characters in the book, there’s Jun Do. Then there are his associations with the orphanage/tunnel/kidnap/language school people. There’s the Captain/Second Mate and other fishing boat people as well as the rowing woman and old man interrogator. There are Mongnan and the prison people. The are the Texas trip people including Commander Buc. Then there is Sun Moon and her children and the Investigator and his parents. Kim Il Jun plays a huge part of course. The newscasts? Korea is a character?
Snakes abound in the story but they’re almost always poisonous so it’s hard to think of that in terms of the symbolism of regeneration or rebirth – although …
One thing about this book is that there are no gimmicks – the metaphors reflect the setting and situations, the non-linear chronology reflects the way the tale is presenting itself – as a story of stories – real or not – memories, reality. These themes all lend themselves wonderfully to certain techniques. Ga doesn’t always tell him but Ga does remember.