Identity Theft, North Korean Style: Final Thoughts on Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (by Bethany)

cover image of the orphan master's son

If I wanted to be cynical (and I often do, though not necessarily right now), I would say that anyone who wants to write fiction about North Korea should follow these four easy steps:

  1. Read 1984,
  2. Change some names around and stuff,
  3. Make it even creepier than Orwell’s original, and
  4. Win Pulitzer Prize.

Hey, it worked for Adam Johnson.

This is not my way of saying that The Orphan Master’s Son is not a good book. It’s an excellent book, actually, and in spite of my comments above I sense that Johnson’s research was meticulous. Centuries in the future, when 1948 and 2012 don’t seem as far apart to readers as they do to us, these two novels could well be studied together in a course on Literature of the Great Communist Experiment, or something like that.

In my last post I summarized the plot of the first quarter or so of the novel, and since I am going to try hard not to repeat myself you might want to check that post out here. After the captain of the Junma tattoos the image of Sun Moon – North Korea’s most beloved actress – on Jun Do’s chest, the Second Mate on the ship defects. North Korean fishing boats are usually not equipped with lifeboats – since it is generally understood that fishermen and others might use them to defect – but the Americans who boarded the Junma and caused some low-level mayhem decided to give them some basic supplies, including a lifeboat, and one morning the men wake up and the Second Mate and the lifeboat are gone. The men on the ship enter into one of many iterations of a pattern that happens many times in this novel: they concoct a story to tell the authorities – ideally a story that won’t get them killed. The story is that the Americans came back to taunt the North Koreans more, and they threw the Second Mate into the ocean, where he was devoured by sharks. Next in their story, Jun Do jumps into the water to save the Second Mate and is attacked by sharks but survives. Once the crew agrees on this story, Jun Do accepts the reality that he will have to show up on shore with actual shark bites. The captain takes one of the sharks that is thrashing around in the ship’s fishing nets and sets up a sort of controlled shark bite scenario for Jun Do on the deck of the ship – and of course, this scene is all the more horrifying for being controlled and deliberate and voluntary for all involved.

Back on land, Jun Do receives some basic medical care (i.e. his wounds are stitched up with fishing line), and the men from the ship are quickly separated from one another, interrogated, and tortured. While others are not so fortunate, the interrogators believe Jun Do’s story and are impressed with his ability to endure torture. Soon, only minutes after his last torture session, Jun Do is told to board a plane – fishing line stitches and all – and taken along on a mission to Texas, where a fictional North Korean minister (I say ‘fictional’ because he is actually the chauffeur of some party official – his job is to not speak English and let the others speak for him) is going to enter into negotiations with an American senator about a piece of equipment – a Geiger counter of some kind, I think – which the North Koreans stole from the Japanese and the Americans then confiscated from a North Korean ship. The North Koreans are hoping to get this item back. I’m not entirely sure why Jun Do is chosen for this mission, but I believe it involves both his English language skills (which are implausibly impressive, given the fact that he has not conversed in English before this trip and has only been trained to listen and transcribe) and the fact that he has proved himself able to sustain a fictional identity and, if necessary, to withstand torture.

In Texas, the senator and his wife and their various colleagues – including two CIA agents named Tommy and Wanda – give the North Koreans what an American reader will recognize as a warm Texas welcome. They have an outdoor barbeque meal, which they eat from paper plates on the grass, and they are given cowboy boots, cowboy hats, and other gifts that demonstrate the unique character of Texas. Like the sailors on the American ship, the people Jun Do meets in Texas immediately recognize him as an outsider. The CIA agent named Wanda gives Jun Do a cell phone that does nothing except take photos, which are sent immediately back to Wanda and are never saved on the phone. “If there is anything in your country that you want me to see,” Wanda says, “just take a picture of it and I’ll receive it.” Recognizing that Jun Do is wounded, the Americans ask him what happened, and as soon as he begins telling the carefully-concocted story about the American sailors and the second mate and the shark attack, I knew all in one flash how good a storyteller Adam Johnson is and how organically the plot of this novel would unfold. Because of course the Americans don’t believe his story for a second. The authorities in North Korea believed it because they are all subject to the same tunnel vision and cognitive dissonance as the men who made it up. In North Korea, loudspeakers blare endless mind-numbing propaganda about how terrible life is in the imperialist nations of the world, with the U.S. and South Korea as its prime targets. The idea that an American naval ship would board a tiny North Korean fishing vessel a second time – after already declaring it free of contraband – for the purpose of physically attacking its crew and throwing one man to the sharks made perfect sense to North Korean authorities who 1) are brainwashed to believe that Americans are vicious and violent (which we are sometimes, it’s true – but not always) and 2) live in a place where atrocities like these do sometimes happen. Would a North Korean military commander throw a citizen into shark-infested waters for some vague, unstated reason? Sure!

The Americans are less gullible. After Jun Do tells his story, the senator’s wife, who is a doctor, takes Jun Do into her house under the pretense of removing his fishing-line stitches and treating the wound properly, and she asks him what really happened. Of course Jun Do doesn’t tell – he was chosen for this trip for his ability to hold to a fictitious story even under scrutiny. Then the senator’s wife asks Jun Do about the tattoo on his chest (see my last post for the specifications of this tattoo; it’s central to the plot from here on out), and he tells her that the woman on his chest is his wife, Sun Moon, the greatest actress in North Korea.

Jun Do assumes that he is safe in telling this quasi-lie to the senator’s wife because he doesn’t realize how quickly information can be acquired and moved around in the ‘imperialist’ world. Before the barbeque is over, Wanda has fed the name Sun Moon into a search engine and learned that the actress’ husband is a high-ranking military officer named Commander Ga. Since the Americans never really believed Jun Do’s story about being a lowly interpreter, they latch onto the idea that Jun Do really is Commander Ga. They call him by that name, and of course he doesn’t correct them.

The Americans don’t give the North Koreans their (stolen) Geiger counter back, and the North Korean “delegation” goes home angry and afraid, assuming they’ll be punished for not getting the Geiger counter back. So once again, Jun Do is part of a group of North Koreans plotting to develop the story they’ll tell the authorities about why they failed to perform their objective. They manufacture an exaggerated version of the picnic the Americans held for them, with the goal of showing that the Americans were planning to humiliate them. For example, they plan to say that they were forced to eat on the bare ground, with paper plates in their laps and dogs walking around (apparently North Koreans hate dogs). They plan to complain that they were not greeted with a red carpet and a band and what-all. This time Jun Do doesn’t fare quite as well in the interrogation process, and he is sent to a prison camp, where he is assigned to work in the mines (remember that earlier in his life he was a “tunnel soldier,” trained to work in total darkness). And have I mentioned that Commander Ga is the minister of prison mines?

Believe it or not, everything I’ve told you so far comes from Part I of the novel, which is impossibly dense with plot and characterization. Part II is called “The Confessions of Commander Ga,” and I’m not going to tell you much about what happens, except to say that Jun Do ends up stealing Commander Ga’s identity. I’m not going to tell you how he does it; I’ll just say that by the middle of the novel Jun Do is living as Commander Ga – Sun Moon knows he’s an imposter, of course, but what’s she going to do about it? It’s North Korea! – and is still using his skills at dissembling and working under the cover of darkness. The “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, is now a regular figure in Jun Do’s life and even thinks the decision to replace the old Commander Ga with a new one was his own idea.

Does everyone turn out happy and well? you ask. Of course not – this is North Korea! Everything turns out horribly. But Jun Do does have a little bit of vindication first; when he dies at least it’s with the knowledge that he has managed to exercise a little bit of agency in this world of deceit and manipulation, and with the knowledge that he now understands this system – or at least has come closer to understanding it than all but a few citizens ever do.

This is really a fantastic novel, and I’m a little embarrassed that all I’ve done in both of my reviews is summarize the plot (and really just the plot of Part I!). I could rave on and on about how good the writing is and how seamlessly the plot emerges out of character, but since this novel won the Pulitzer I’m going to assume these accomplishments are a given. This is sort of novel one has in mind when one contemplates the fact that The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer and say WTF??

I recommend this novel highly. Read it. You know you want to.

This entry was posted in Adam Johnson, Authors, Fiction - general, Fiction - Important Award Winners, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

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