” In Prison 33, little by little, you relinquished everything, starting with your tomorrows and all that might be. Next went your past, and suddenly it was inconceivable that your head had ever touched a pillow, that you’d once used a spoon or a toilet, that your mouth and once known flavors and your eyes had beheld colors beyond gray and brown and the shade of black that blood took on. ” (Part II, p.369)
Set in the dictatorial Communist regime of North Korea, where people are trained to accept any reality presented to them, the novel recounts the story of its title character, Jun Do, a soldier turned kidnapper turned surveillance officer, who tries to stay alive as he stumbles his way through the government bureaucracy. The first of two parts chronicles his adventures, and the latter his being the imposter of a commander. Adam Johnson conjures the surreality of life under brutal totalitarianism.
At fourteen, during a famine, Jun Do, along with other orphans, were taken into the army. He becomes a tunnel soldier under the DMZ. After eight years of service in the dark, by a strange turn beyond comprehension, becomes a kidnapper—targeting female opera singer and any women with a hint of beauty from Japan to serve high officials in the D.P.R.K., perhaps even the fear Leader himself. Soon Jun Do is sent to language school in preparation for a post in the belly of a fishing boat in the Pacific, where he listens through the night to distant broadcasts for signs of imperialist incursion, including an American woman rowing across the world, who later to be plucked from the sea by North Korean authority.
The Pyongchon eating distinct extinguished as they drove through it . . . the housing blocks along Haebangsan Street went black. Nighty-night, Pyongyang. You earned it. No nation sleeps as North Korea sleeps. After lights-out, there is a collective exhale as heads hit pillows across a million households . . . (Part II, p.260)
Gear shifts and the novel gains momentum in the second part of the book in which Johnson transforms Jun Do from an underground man into a kind of tragic hero. Without much of an explanation, he escapes fro the mining prison and takes on the identity of a famous military commander who is an enemy of Kim Jong Il. He even falls in love with the commander’s wife and is determined to save her from the regime. This is where The Orphan Master’s Son renders so authentic of the mysterious North Korea. Told initially in the third person, through Jun Do’s perceptions, it now gains two supplementary voices. One is the loudspeaker, the government mouthpiece, which blares out to the entire country the officially sanctioned story of Jun Do’s life. The other is a first-person narration by a nameless interrogator who extracts stories from the enemy of the state.
But the book more than evokes lives under the totalitarian regime. It digs deeper into repressed state and mentality. Government myths about the country are not only tirelessly inculcated into the citizenry through propaganda broadcasts but also have deprived people of individuality. Life is made lighter to live through self-deceit, which slowly breaks down until even the fundamental lies that form one’s identity falter and fall. The deceit, self-censorship and paranoia corrode even family bond. As the story heads toward a triumphant, if violent, conclusion, the loudspeaker, in parallel, broadcasts a false propaganda version; but the real denouement is no more believable than the false one. The writing is at once dense and unyielding, blending polemics and magical realism.
456 pp. Random House. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]