The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson
This is a book I bought twice: first to stick in my ears on long runs (chillingly read by a Korean American triumvirate of Tim Kang, Josiah D. Lee, and James Kyson Lee), and when I couldn’t soak in the story quickly enough, I ordered an on-paper version to hold in my hands in between plugging in. Yes, this novel is that addictively amazing.
I confess to initial wariness over Adam Johnson‘s ability to conjure a convincing story about a country as shuttered as North Korea (yes, he’s been there, and shares his experiences in the bonus essay at the end of the audible version, but as with most guests to the truly hermit kingdom, every detail of his visit was highly orchestrated). I also questioned the unrelenting violence in Orphan, so mind-boggling as to be comprehensible only as made-up nightmares.
All doubts vanished, however, when I read the upcoming non-fiction title, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by journalist Blaine Harden, and had the horrific realization that Johnson’s novel, as stupendous as it is, is North Korea-lite. As utterly terrifying as Orphan is, its torturous content pales to what’s revealed in Camp 14. That truth proves paralyzing …
But back to fiction: Meet Pak Jun Do, whose name is not so dissimilar from the anonymous John Doe. “‘A John Doe has an exact identity,’” a CIA agent comments in response to Jun Do’s name, “‘It’s just waiting to be discovered.’” Indeed, Jun Do’s many-stage metamorphosis from a motherless young boy burdened with a North Korean martyr’s name to his reinvention decades later as another dead man, is a labyrinthine epic quest for self-knowledge, if not some semblance of redemption.
Jun Do grows up the only child of the Orphan Master at Long Tomorrows orphanage; one of his responsibilities is to rename the incoming boys “from the list of 114 Grand Martyrs of the Revolution.” These names will mark the orphans for life as rootless, even disposable beings. Not wanting to show any signs of favoritism, Jun Do, too, bears a martyr’s name and endures violent punishment from his father. Both father and son forever mourn the loss of wife and mother, a singer so beautiful that she was shipped off to Pyongyang to entertain citizens who actually matter.
Never able to shake his orphan name, the adult Jun Do endures a series of violent jobs, from kidnapping ordinary Japanese citizens to covertly tracking foreign radio signals from a fishing boat. He eventually boards a plane bound for Texas, returns to the homeland, and lands in a gruesome labor camp, only to re-emerge as someone else. He finds himself married to the woman of his dreams and as her replacement husband, he will do anything to save her from the glory of the Dear Leader …
More than a thriller, a mystery, or even a romance-of-sorts, Orphan is unshakable testimony to the power of storytelling. “For us,” a high-ranking official explains without irony, “the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.” Power belongs to the story – and stories become a matter of life and death. For Jun Do, trying to control his narrative in some small way is what will keep him alive …