Anyone familiar with George Orwell’s 1984 is bound to think of the hapless Winston Smith while reading Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Orwell, of course, wrote his fantasy in reaction to the rise of Communist Russia.
Johnson’s tale is also fiction, but it’s based on what we know about the harsh reality of life in the world’s most oppressive dictatorship – North Korea.
Johnson follows the adventures of Pak Jun Do, who manages to preserve his core of humanity despite a range of traumatic experiences: growing up in a wretched orphanage, working in a dangerous tunnel linking North and South Korea, going on kidnapping missions to Japan, and salvaging the blood from dying patients in a prison hospital. An encounter with an American naval vessel gets him embroiled in a propaganda visit to Texas, where he meets a Senator whose negotiations with North Korea’s leadership may offer Jun Do a way out of his nightmarish existence.
This is a country in which starving people chew the bark off trees and steal flowers from graves to eat the petals. Where torture is an art form. Where beautiful women are commodities of the State. Where people who fail in their duties fabricate lies in order to survive, and where a successful lie can make you a hero. As Jun Do reflects at one point, “In North Korea, you weren’t born, you were made.”
Along the way we meet a crew of interrogators, one of whom makes biographies of the people he tortures while caring for his elderly parents, who are terrified of becoming his next victims. And there’s Sun Moon, the movie star protégé of North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” who becomes involved with Jun Do after he assumes her dead husband’s identity.
Readers may be confused by the time slippage Johnson uses to show what happens to his characters. But if you stick with it, their fate becomes clear. Unlike the doomed Winston Smith, Pak Jun Do is resourceful and uses the means at his disposal to his advantage. Ultimately, there is hope that freedom can arise from confinement, dignity from degradation, and life from death.
I give The Orphan Master’s Son only four stars out of five due to an excess of offensive language.