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Friday, November 20, 2015

Review of "The Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson

On Tuesday of this week, the winner of the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction was announced:  Adam Johnson for his short story collection, Fortune Smiles:  “ In six stories, Johnson delves deep into love and loss, natural disasters, the influence of technology, and how the political shapes the personal. “Nirvana” portrays a programmer whose wife has a rare disease finding solace in a digital simulacrum of the president of the United States. In “Hurricanes Anonymous”a young man searches for the mother of his son in a Louisiana devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” follows a former warden of a Stasi prison in East Germany who vehemently denies his past, even as pieces of it are delivered in packages to his door. And in the title story, Johnson returns to his signature subject, North Korea, depicting two defectors from Pyongyang who are trying to adapt to their new lives in Seoul, while one cannot forget the woman he left behind” (

I have not read this collection, but certainly plan to do so.  I have read Johnson’s Pulitizer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son.  Here’s my review of that book which I read in June of 2013.
4 Stars
This Pulitzer-Prize-winning dystopian political satire focuses on the absurdity of life in Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea. Jun Do (a Korean John Doe) begins life in an orphanage and at the dictates of the state becomes a soldier in the tunnels beneath the DMZ, a kidnapper of Japanese and South Korean citizens, a spy on a fishing boat monitoring and transcribing intercepted radio broadcasts, and a prisoner in a prison mine. Eventually he moves into the upper echelons of Pyongyang society by impersonating a military commander and there he meets Sun Moon, the Dear Leader’s favourite actress whom Jun Do falls in love.

A major theme is the importance of narrative in a totalitarian regime. Jun Do is told, “’Where we are from . . . stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change’” (121 – 122). In other words, only that which the state wants to be true is true. Several people refer to this fact of life. When the crew of a fishing trawler has its flag and portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung confiscated by American sailors, the consequences for which could be imprisonment or death, the captain asks Jun Do what they will tell the authorities: “’When they ask you what happened to our flag and portraits, what story are you going to tell them’” (63)? Later, to cover up a crew member’s defection, a farfetched story is concocted and Jun Do says, “’Sharks and guns and revenge . . . I know I thought it up, but this isn’t a story that anyone could really believe,’” but the captain says, “’You’re right . . . But it’s a story they can use’” (83). When the bizarre story is accepted by the Ministry of Information, Jun Do is astounded and blurts out, “’But the facts . . . They don’t add up.’” The state representative replies, “’There’s no such thing as facts. In my world, all the answers you need come from here.’ He pointed to himself . . .” (90). When a diplomatic mission does not go well, those involved “concoct a story to mitigate their failure” (162), a story that “’will speak to the Dear Leader [and] might save [their] lives’” (165). An interrogator for the state thinks of his job as learning a subject’s secrets and writing his/her biography: “When you have a subject’s biography, there is nothing between the citizen and the state. That’s harmony, that’s the idea our nation is founded upon” (181).

There is considerable humour in the book, much of it found in the sections where the words of the state’s propaganda machine are given over the loudspeakers located so everyone can hear. North Korean citizens are told that they live in “a land so pure it knows nothing of materialist greed” (343) ruled by a man who scored eleven holes-in-one in a golf game and whose very presence leaves people feeling all “earthly worries fall away” (224). The U.S. is portrayed as “a land where doctors chase pregnant women with ultrasounds . . . where huge populations . . . babble incoherently about God on the sweatpants-polished pews of megachurches” (351), a nation where “Lazy and unmotivated, Americans stay up late, engaging in television, homosexuality, and even religion, anything to fill their selfish appetites” (261). Humour also exists in the contrast between what actually happens and the state’s version of what happened where even birds do the bidding of the Great Leader.

Jun Do behaves consistently, is sufficiently motivated in his actions, and is largely plausible. The one difficulty is his command of the English language. He is sent to language school: “The school officials had no interest in teaching Jun Do to speak English. He simply had to transcribe it, learning vocabulary and grammar” (39). “He’d heard that the language school where they taught you to speak English was in Pyongyang and was filled with yangbans, kids of the elite” (42). He has to sound out “life raft” because “he’d barely spoken English before, it had never been part of his training” (59), yet he is soon talking with Americans with ease?

The author apparently did a great deal of research and was even able to visit the Hermit Kingdom, but it is difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction. (I would have appreciated a bibliography listing the materials which comprised his research.) The picture of life in North Korea, which Jun Do describes as “his small, backward homeland, a land of mysteries and ghosts and mistaken identities” (146), is surreal.  Unfortunately, the book may be more fact than fiction; certainly what little we know about the country suggests that the prevalent paranoia depicted in the novel is very real.