The Orphan Master’s Son: best left in the orphanage

by Philip Gowman on 23 March, 2012

in Book Reviews | Books on DPRK | Novels in English

Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master’s Son
Doubleday, 2012
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The publication of The Orphan Master’s Son, the second novel by Adam Johnson, had lucky timing, surfing the wave of interest in the North caused by the death of Kim Jong-il. The newspapers duly lined up to review it to general acclaim, but an early battleground formed: just how “authentic” is it in its depiction of that strange world north of the DMZ? Barbara Demick in the Guardian was enthusiastic: “he’s managed to capture the atmosphere of this hermit kingdom better than any writer I’ve read.” Against this, it has had an authoritative put-down from James Church on 38 North. “Buy The Orphan Master’s Son, by all means. Read it for fun. Enjoy it or not. Just don’t imagine it opens much of a window into North Korea.”

If the jury is out on the novel’s authenticity, let’s just consider it on its own terms, rather than as a window into North Korea.

The Orphan Master’s Son is a book of two parts. In the first, we are introduced to our central character, Jun Do. Though not actually an orphan himself, he lives as one, and suffers from the institutionalised discrimination against orphans.

The structure of this part of the book has little to recommend it. After an initial career in tunnel infiltration beneath the DMZ, we see Jun Do in three separate episodes with little to connect them: Jun Do as an agent trained to kidnap Japanese citizens to teach in North Korean language schools; Jun Do as a wireless operator in the East Sea, listening in to foreign broadcasts; and Jun Do on a pointless diplomatic mission to meet a senator in Texas, which provides opportunities for some rather stilted fish-out-of-water comedy. It’s as if the author had a TV serialisation in mind: useful standalone little stories in their own right, with a common character. Emphasis is on the story rather than the character, and when suddenly Jun Do shows some emotion reflecting his troubled past it comes as a surprise because we have had so little preparation for anything apart from action:

“How to tell the Second Mate that the only way to shake your ghosts was to find them, and that the only place Jun Do could do that was right here. How to explain the recurring dream that he’s listening to his radio, that he’s getting the remnants of important messages, from his mother, from other boys in the orphanage.”

It’s as out of place as chintz in a gentleman’s club.

If the novel had continued in this vein for all of its 464 pages it would be immediate charity-shop fodder: get it out of the house as soon as possible to liberate precious shelf-space for something more deserving.

Fortunately, the second half of the book gives more interest. Jun Do returns to North Korea from his Texas trip and is immediately sent to a prison mine. But he manages to escape, with his identity changed as Commander Ga, a high-ranking official in charge of the same prison mines, famed as the man who rid the Peoples Army of homosexuals, but himself rather too prone to inflicting brutal “man attacks” on his defenceless subordinates.

Ga swings both ways though. And he, Jun Do and the Dear Leader have one thing in common: an unhealthy admiration for the improbably named Sun Moon, the country’s leading actress, who was given as a wife to Ga as a reward for his heroic contributions to the state.

The continuing story is told from three different perspectives: what appears to be Jun Do’s own viewpoint – or at least the privileged viewpoint of the author – which tells the story of Jun Do’s activities after he escaped from the prison mine and went to live with Sun Moon; the first-person narrative of Jun Do’s interrogator, who is trying to find out what Jun Do did to her; and the officially-embroidered version of the story, as broadcast daily via the loudspeakers present in every apartment block in the country, with the hyperbolic Fish Called Wanda-style ending. The interweaving of the different perspectives, particularly when the reader is not sure whether the “real” Commander Ga is being talked about or the imposter Jun Do, is an ingenious device which could be tiresome in less capable hands but which succeeds in being tantalising, teasing you to read further. You want to find out whether our hero manages to help Sun Moon and her children to defect, or whether he kills her to keep her from a worse fate. You want to find out whether the interrogator discovers the truth, and how the official propagandists twist it.

In this second half of the narrative, we see rather too much of the Dear Leader himself as a comedy figure who cooks up sick practical jokes, who believes in the Stockholm syndrome, fondly imagining that his American hostage is falling in love with him, and that Sun Moon is similarly besotted. We get humorous references to other members of the Axis of Evil: Syria provides the technological know-how for the ultimate torture device, known as the “autopilot”, while Robert Mugabe seems to provide a never-ending supply of rhino horn. The bizarre plans for a reception committee for a visiting American delegation is worthy of a Tom Sharpe novel. Unfortunately all this comedy rather gets in the way of the story, which though far-fetched pulls you along nicely.

In the end, is the novel a success on its own terms, regardless of how convincing its portrayal of the DPRK? With a less episodic narrative style in the first half it could have been. The second half goes some way to outweigh the flaws of the first. With less comedy, and less of Kim Jong-il, the suspense might have been more compelling. But on balance, Jun Do the Orphan Master’s Son would have been better off left in the Long Tomorrows orphanage.

The door is left open to a sequel. In the final chapter of the first-person narrative told from the interrogator’s viewpoint, the story ends with the interrogator plugging himself into the “autopilot”, which is meant to erase all memories, turning the victim into a zombie-like creature who will live out the rest of his life an unquestioning servant of the state. Beside him, also plugged in at maximum setting, is Jun Do. Unless Johnson has committed an elementary schoolboy blunder, the interrogator must have survived this ordeal with all his faculties intact, otherwise his first-person narrative could not have been told. It is therefore possible that Jun Do, because of the extreme pain training he’s been through, will also come through unscathed, leaving him to fight another day.

If so, don’t be tempted. Leave the book on the shelf.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Steve January 17, 2013 at 1:23 am

Boy does it irk me when someone “tells” me to leave a book on the shelf. Should I tell people to leave your next book review on the shelf? How juvenile.

It’s fine to express your opinion about a book. If it’s well-written, well-reasoned, and well-supported, then it may – or may not – convince some people not to read the first – or next – book (if there is a sequel). You wanted more of this and less of that, yada yada yada. Yawn. The worst parts of this book are better than the best parts of your review, in my opinion. I think you are “rather too much” concerned over whether Johnson gets all the technical details right. Personally I don’t think he was even trying to get all the technical details right, and that’s fine with me.

You didn’t like the serial-like story structure of the first half. Well, I did. I’m sorry if it confused you, but what can I say? It didn’t confuse me, and I’m normally a stickler for logic in the “real world.” What you put down as structure problems, I see as amusing mythical or surreal elements. You even quibble about the “improbably named Sun Moon.” What’s wrong with you anyway? Ditto for your snarky remark about Church’s “authoritative put-down.” I suspect that any opinion that jibes with your own is, by definition, authoritative. I don’t think Johnson’s main objective was to write a “probable” (i.e. technically correct in every detail) story about North Korea. Neither do I think that Yann Martel set out to write a “probable” story about surviving on a lifeboat. I can only imagine the problems you have with Life of Pi and the “improbably named Richard Parker.”

The “window” that this book opens up for people is a glimpse of an insular nation juxtaposed with institutionalized and omnipresent propaganda, absolute power corrupting absolutely, the routine use of torture, and of course the insidious harm of an informant-based society which poisons all relationships. Does any of that seem “improbable” to you, Philip? Is it possible that you’re missing the forest for the trees, when the story is about the forest and not the trees?

And where on earth did you come up with the expression “chintz in a gentlemen’s club”? If that’s any indication of your writing ability, Philip, don’t quit your day job of criticizing other writers. :-)

Philip Gowman January 17, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Hi Steve
Thanks for visiting, for reading the review to the end, and for taking the time to write.

I’m not sure that I found the first section confusing. It was admirably clear and action packed. I just found it bitty and unsatisfying. If I were to say I was confused by any of it, it would be the second, meatier, half – but confused in a good way, in that I found it kept the reader unsettled, like a good thriller or detective yarn. But what I liked less about the second half were the comedy elements (not absent from the first half if I remember right, but not so out of place there). Sometimes a bit of light relief or genre-bending works; I just felt this didn’t work for me.

I’m glad I read the book, to see what everyone else was talking about. And the first things I read about the book was the discussion among the North Korea specialists about how “authentic” it was – hence my links to a couple of relevant articles. But putting that aside I am puzzled at what seems to be a fairly universal welcome for the book. I can’t help thinking that it’s part timing (hitting the shops during the DPRK leadership transition) and part novelty value (there aren’t that many works of English language fiction set in that fascinating and horrifying half of the peninsula). I hope I’ve explained why I wouldn’t buy a sequel (and another reason is that I have too many other things to fit around my day job, which I have no intention of giving up yet). I know I’m in the minority in not particularly liking it, and of course you don’t have to follow my recommendations now or ever.

Do come back and disagree with me some more. And try some of James Church’s novels – see if you like them more or less than Orphan Master’s Son.

Re gentlemen’s clubs, if it makes any difference to your views on the simile, I was thinking more along the lines of the Reform or the Carlton rather than the sleazier venues which are sometimes given that euphemism. But it probably doesn’t ;-)

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