The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Every year I read the work of fiction (usually a novel but sometimes a volume of short stories) that wins the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. For me, there have been many high points (Ironweed, Martin Dressler, The Hours, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, The Road, A Confederacy of Dunces) and some low points (anything involving yuppie angst or “relationships”). It seems that some years the winner is based more on “suitability” or “political correctness” rather than merit.
This year’s winner is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. It is set in North Korea, the one country on earth that is like no other. I had never given much thought before to North Korea. It is a communist totalitarian society. People are routinely tortured or imprisoned in horrible prison camps where they are certain to die in a few months. There is no religion other than worship of the “Dear Leader” and the state. The simple freedoms we take for granted in the United States are absent. It is a crime punishable by death to own certain items, such as a Bible or an unauthorized radio. People “disappear” overnight, for no apparent reason, and nobody ever knows what happened to them. People must act and think at all time for the good of the collective. There is no individuality.
The protagonist of The Orphan Master’s Son is a young man named Jun Do. He grows up in an orphan asylum, although he claims he has one parent living, the “orphan master.” In young adulthood, he is conscripted to help kidnap people who happen to be unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. (What they do with these kidnapped people is not fully explained.) When he is older he ends up as a radio operator on a North Korean fishing vessel. What happens to him on the fishing vessel drives the narrative for the rest of the novel.
Only married men are allowed to work on fishing vessels. Their wives’ likenesses are tattooed on their chests. If any of them dare to defect to Japan or some other country, their wives and families can be tortured and killed. Since Jun Do doesn’t have a wife, the men on the fishing vessel tattoo on his chest the likeness of Sun Moon, Korea’s national actress and a favorite of the Dear Leader, who has made her what she is. All her films are propaganda disguised as entertainment.
Sun Moon’s husband is the mysterious and powerful Commander Ga. We don’t know much about Commander Ga, except that he is cruel and feared. Through a quirk of fate (or many quirks of fate), Jun Do kills Commander Ga and assumes his identity. From that point on in the story, Jun Do becomes Commander Ga. In pretending to be Sun Moon’s husband (and father to her two children), he falls in love with her and finally, through many twists and turns, determines her fate. He is inspired by the story of the movie Casablanca, in which “the honorable man stays behind.”
While The Orphan Master’s Son is easy to read and held my interest for much of its 443 pages, the reading of it seemed interminable to me. After about page 300, I was ready for it to end. Too much torture and unrelieved grimness. I mostly came away with the impression that I sure am glad I wasn’t born in North Korea. I don’t think I’d last a whole day there and it’s a world I don’t want to revisit anytime soon.
Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp