At first my plan was not to write a progress report on this book, since there are all kinds of complexities going on and I am not 100% sure what is “real” (within the framework of the fictional novel) and what is not. But this book is just too good to keep quiet about, and the idea of trying to capture it in a single review is daunting. Today I’ll focus on Part One, which is 177 pages long and titled “The Autobiography of Jun Do.” I’ll close with some speculations about where Part Two is going, at least as far as I can discern on page 249.
The orphan master’s son of the title is Pak Jun Do, who grew up in an orphanage. His mother was beautiful (which, because the novel is set in North Korea, means that at some point after Jun Do’s birth she was kidnapped by the government and taken to Pyongyang to become an actress or singer). Jun Do’s father was so devastated by the loss of his wife that he 1) became a drunk and 2) applied for a job as an orphan master so that his son could be raised among orphans. His rationale is that if his son blends in with the orphans, he will not have to confront the daily shame of having his wife taken away from him. This sounds like spotty logic to me, but it worked for him.
Like just about every other subgroup in North Korea, orphans are stigmatized and abused. They are not given names of their own, but instead are assigned one of 114 pre-existing names belonging to “Grand Martyrs of the Revolution.” This assignment of special names for orphans reminds me of the designated names for “bastards” in the Game of Thrones series. Both systems seem to have similar purposes: to mark these individuals as “different” and/or shameful not just in person, but administratively as well. In the North Korea of this novel, orphans are reviled because they did not grow up with their parents and therefore were never taught the concept of loyalty. The state believes that orphans under duress will always sacrifice others to save themselves because they have never experienced parental love and self-sacrifice. Jun Do, of course, is not an orphan, but because he grew up with orphans and is named after one of the Grand Martyrs, he carries the stigma of orphanhood just the same. As the son of the orphan master and the oldest “orphan “in the unit, Jun Do has the job of assigning these names to the orphans as they arrive. He also assigns each orphan to his sleeping arrangements and does other administrative tasks for his father, who is usually drunk. When orphans are “adopted,” it is usually by factories, and you can guess how that turns out. In the meantime, “anyone who could feed the boys and provide a bottle for the Orphan Master could have them for the day” (8), so Jun Do and the rest of the orphans get farmed out to do all kinds of grisly tasks, like filling sandbags, breaking the ice off the river, and shoveling up the chemical waste from paint factories. When Jun Do is grown, he is required to join the army and becomes a “tunnel soldier, trained in the art of zero-light combat” (9). He and the other tunnel soldiers are taught that their enemies – mainly the South Koreans and the Americans, although vague references to “imperialists” could mean others as well – are weak because when they fight in tunnels they use headlamps and/or night vision goggles, and the North Koreans are the only true heroes because their tunnel soldiers are trained to fight in pitch dark without any equipment (when the reality is that their army can’t afford lights and night vision goggles because they spend too much on bubble bath and prostitutes for the Dear Leader – but I digress). This experience of fighting for one’s life in pitch darkness is, of course, a metaphor for everything else that happens in this novel and in North Korea in general.
One day, without warning, Jun Do is told that he is no longer a tunnel soldier. His new job is to sneak into neighboring countries (usually South Korea and Japan) to kidnap beautiful women, who will be taken to Pyongyang to be singers or actresses (or, I assume, prostitutes). He is vaguely aware that he is participating in the same process that stole his mother away from him, but he never considers the possibility of refusing this assignment or subverting the process in some way. Among this novel’s many strengths is the way Johnson renders Jun Do’s state-inflicted disordered thinking.
Jun Do does well at his new kidnapping job and is sent to language school as a result. Language school is considered to be the pipeline to a cushy assignment – or at least to an assignment as cushy as assignments can get in the North Korean army. He studies English and is trained to operate radio equipment, and his job is to monitor radio frequencies on the Pacific Ocean. He is assigned to a small fishing boat called the Junma. On the ship he has a tiny windowless room filled with radio equipment, and at first he doesn’t have much contact with the other personnel on the ship. This isolation is yet another manifestation of the symbolic resonance of Jun Do’s earlier career as a tunnel fighter. Jun Do tends to get insomnia (I can’t imagine why) and often stays up late listening to frequencies other than the one he is assigned to monitor. In particular, he is captivated by two American women who are rowing across the Pacific Ocean. One woman rows all day, and then her partner rows all night, and they broadcast updates about their experiences at regular intervals.
The fact that Jun Do is marked as an orphan and is also not married is remarked upon often. In North Korea, it seems to be common practice for fishermen who are at sea for long periods of time to have images of their wives tattooed on their chests. I didn’t get a sense for whether this is required or if it is something the men do on their own. Single people are distrusted for the same reason orphans are – because they have not “learned to be loyal” – plus there are mentions made of the fact that in North Korea no one is allowed to go to sea or to any other location from which it is possible to defect unless there is some key person back at home that the citizen loves more than he loves himself or the chance at freedom. Jun Do seems to have slipped through the cracks of this particular resolution, as he has gone on kidnapping missions in South Korea and Japan and was given a great deal of autonomy on these missions.
One day some Americans board the Junma. The crew has received an order for a specific kind of shrimp that Kim Jung Il likes to eat while it’s still alive and wriggling (!), and since this kind of shrimp is scarce during this particular time of year, the captain has taken the boat out of North Korean waters. As a precaution, the captain removes the boat’s flag and also declines to respond to distress calls and other communication from other ships. When they ignore a signal from an American navy ship, the Americans board the Junma and search it. They recognize that Jun Do is not a fisherman and assign him to perform some basic tasks involving the boat’s nets and traps – his lack of skill in these areas confirms what they already know. Next, the Americans start playing around in the Junma, sending goofy messages from Jun Do’s radio (“This is a person-to-person message to Kim Jong Il from Tom John-Son. We have intercepted your primping boat, but can’t locate your hairspray, jumpsuit, or elevator shoes, over” ). Finally they take the boat’s framed pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and other items as “souvenirs” and return to their own ship.
After the Americans leave, the crew on the Junma agrees that Jun Do needs to learn more about fishing and blend in among the fishermen more, so they convince him to let the captain tattoo a woman’s face on his chest. To appease Jun Do, the captain promises to “give [him] the most beautiful wife in the world” (72), and the woman he chooses is Sun Moon, the most beloved actress in North Korea (again with the beautiful actresses – Jun Do’s life is once again crossing paths with the North Korean practice of kidnapping beautiful women and deploying them as actresses and singers. We’re not told for sure that Sun Moon was kidnapped in this way, but Jun Do thinks of it, and I did too).
I’ve written almost 1500 words of plot summary, and I’m sure some readers are annoyed that I have given away so much of the novel’s story. But look at the page references for the quotations I’ve used: everything I’ve summarized takes place in the first 72 pages of the novel. This novel moves quickly and effortlessly through Jun Do’s experiences, and please be assured that there is a lot of plot that I haven’t included above. When I write my final thoughts on this novel, I’ll do more analysis than summary, and I wanted to familiarize readers now with these introductory plot events. For now, though, I’ll end on a few quick points that are important as the novel progresses.
First, the tattoo of Sun Moon on Jun Do’s chest becomes supremely important in what becomes, more and more, a novel about identity. Sun Moon’s husband is a man named Commander Ga, a high-ranking government minister and trusted confidante of Kim Jung-Il. He is important as well as the novel progresses; Part II of the novel is called “The Confessions of Commander Ga.” The novel continues to cycle through various iterations of the themes of operating in the dark, of love and loyalty, truth and falsehood, and of kidnapping and hijacking not only of people but of their images and their identities. I am officially in awe of this book. Johnson does a fantastic job of capturing the weirdness and terror of the world he creates here, and I can’t wait to finish the book and tell you more.
I am so glad you are reading this book! I have been thinking about reading it and keep postponing.