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Monday, March 26, 2012

Review: 'The Orphan Master's Son'

THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON                                                               
By Adam Johnson
Literary Fiction
January 2012
Random House
ISBN: 978-0-8129-9279-3

At first, Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son appears to be a straight-forward story set in a nation surrounded in secrecy and deception, North Korea. Pak Jun Do is the son of a man who operates a camp where orphans are dumped until either adopted to work at hard labor or who perform ad hoc hard labor. His mother, a wonderful singer, was taken years ago. Jun Do names all the orphans after war heroes, saving for himself the name of a warrior who proved he could be trusted by killing himself.

During the long famine, the orphans die off, his father runs off and Jun Do ends up in the tunnels, trained to kill in the dark. He next surfaces in the hold of a rusting fishing vessel, monitoring radio transmissions by night and trying to fit in with the crew. He's deemed a hero, sent to Texas, sent to prison and tortured, sent to impersonate a former hero of the nation now in disfavor, and tortured. His life is not his own.

The novel throws some strange twists at the reader and tries more than one way to convey narrative. After Jun Do is sent to prison, a second narrator, a nameless interrogator who tries to get the truth from him, carries part of the story. He cares for his blind parents, who are afraid to say anything that would not be approved by the ruling elite. This interrogator, who tortures people, is as powerless as anyone though, getting swept up in involuntary rice harvesting because he's out on the street and not on a bus. Part of the story is told as the annual Best North Korea story broadcast daily. Part of it backtracks to what happened when Jun Do disappeared and became commander Ga, military hero and husband of beloved actress Sun Moon.

The Orphan Master's Son is ultimately about the ways that, when leaders deceive us, we not only go along with it in order to survive, we find new ways to fool ourselves. The actress Sun Moon sees starving families scavenging through tree branches, trying to find chestnuts to eat even though they are as illegal as poaching the king's deer was in Olde England. She says they are acrobats performing for her.