North Korea is an enigma (to me at least). Only a few months ago the young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was saber rattling nuclear missiles, threatening not only South Korea, but American bases in the Pacific as well. Bizarrely, at about the same time, basketball celebrity Dennis Rodman visited the country and the new leader (apparently Kim Jong-un likes basketball). Rodman thinks he played peacemaker. How weird to see the heavily tattooed Rodman sitting side by side with the young chubby cheeked dictator.
Did I really want to know more about the circus-like-train-wreck of North Korea? However, the accolades for Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son were overwhelming, calling to me. So, I’ve read it and can understand why it deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature last year.
This is a compelling novel, such a good story, and so well written. But can life in North Korea really be as Johnson writes? While no one can say whether his depiction is accurate, it is fiction, and it succeeds as an allegory of universal themes.
At times episodic, with shifts in time and voice, mixing the 3rd person narrative of Jun Du AKA Commander Ga, and the 1st person narrative of an interrogator who is dedicated to extracting the “truth” from his interrogees by writing their biographies (vs. the brute torture inflicted by the “Pubyok”). Interspersed are propaganda broadcasts which surreally move the story further along. The entire narrative ultimately revolves around the caprice of “The Dear Leader,” Kim Jong II, (Kim Jong-il, the father of the present leader) who is the ultimate Orphan Master of an entire nation.
One can only describe the action as an extended nightmare, following the narrative down a rabbit hole into a totalitarian state whose underpinning is brainwashing; its people expecting no more than a life that would seem like Dante’s Inferno to any westerner. The book makes normalcy of brutality and propaganda, portraying a society where insanity is sanity. In fact, I was constantly thinking of my college psychology professor, Gustave Gilbert, who wrote The Nuremberg Diary, had interviewed all the major Nazi figures who were put on trial there, and came to the conclusion that as they were raised in a culture where deference to authority took precedence over all, their actions would not be considered “insane” in such a society. I also couldn’t help but think of another WWII allusion, a work of fiction though, Jerzy Kosiński’s The Painted Bird, chronicling the horror witnessed by a young boy, who was considered a Jewish stray, during the War.
And similarly, this is a coming-of-age story of Jun Du (or, as some have aptly noted, a “John Doe”) who, although the son of a man who ran the “Long Tomorrows” orphanage, is raised as an orphan himself, as his beautiful mother, an opera singer, had been shipped off to Pyongyang for the amusement of the New Class, as is so often the fate of beautiful women in that State. From helping to run the orphanage (his father was frequently drunk), he “graduates” to “tunneler” – working in the dark in tunnels under the DMZ to kidnap South Koreans and then Japanese by boat. He further graduates to study English and becomes a radio surveillance 3rd mate on a North Korean fishing ship, reporting English conversations for reasons unknown. One of those conversations is of two American women rowing across the ocean, one of which figures later in the novel.
When Jun Do had filled out his daily requisition of military sounds, he roamed the spectrum. The lepers sent out broadcasts, as did the blind, and the families of inmates imprisoned in Manila who broadcast news into prisons – all day the families would line up to speak of report cards, baby teeth, and new job prospects. There was Dr. Rendezvous, a Brit who broadcast his erotic “dreams” every day, along with the coordinates of where his sailboat would be anchored next. There was a station in Okinawa that broadcast portraits of families that US servicemen refused to claim. Once a day, the Chinese broadcast prisoner confessions, and it didn’t matter that the confessions were forced, false, and in a language he didn’t understand – Jun Do could barely make it through them. And then came that girl who rowed in the dark. Each night she paused to relay her coordinates, how her body was performing and the atmospheric conditions. Often she noted things – the outlines of birds migrating at night, a whale shark seining for krill off her bow. She had, she said, a growing ability to dream while she rowed.
What was it about English speakers that allowed them to talk into transmitters as if the sky were a diary? If Koreans spoke this way, maybe they’d make more sense to Jun Do. Maybe he’d understand why some people accepted their fates while others didn’t He might know why people sometimes scoured all the orphanages looking for one particular child when any child would do, when there were perfectly good children everywhere. He’d know why all the fisherman on the Junma had their wives’ portraits tattooed on their chests, while he was a man who wore headphones in the dark of a fish hold on a boat that was twenty-seven days at sea a month.
Not that he envied those who rowed in the daylight. The light, the sky, the water, they were all things you looked through during the day. At night, they were things you looked into. You looked into stars, you looked into dark rollers, and the surprising platinum flash of their caps. No one ever started at the tip of a cigarette in the daylight hours, and with the sun in the sky, who would ever post a “watch”? At night on the Junma, there was acuity, quietude, pause. There was a look in the crew members’ eyes that was both faraway and inward. Presumably there was another English linguist out there on a similar fishing boat, pointlessly listening to broadcasts from sunrise to sunset. It was certainly another lowly transcriber such as himself.
Our hero finally metamorphosizes into Commander Ga, a hero of the State (and the reader is more than eager to suspend disbelief of this change) as this page turning novel becomes a thriller of the first order. He is united with Commander Ga’s wife, Sun Moon who is the State’s movie actress, a favorite of “The Dear Leader.” From there, all of the main characters in the novel converge, even Sun Moon and the American rower, the propaganda speakers announcing: Citizens! Observe the hospitality our Dear Leader shows for all peoples of the world, even a subject of the despotic United States. Does the Dear Leader not dispatch our nations’ best woman to give solace and support to the wayward American? And does Sun Moon not find the Girl Rower housed in a beautiful room, fresh and white and brightly lit, with a pretty little window affording a view of a lovely North Korean meadow and the dappled horses that frolic there? This is not dingy China or soiled little South Korea, so do not picture some sort of a prison cell with lamp-blacked walls and rust-colored puddles on the floor. Instead, notice the large white tub fitted with golden lion’s feet and filled with the steaming restorative water of the Taedong.
Contrast that Halcyon scene with the reality of our hero’s imprisonment: In Prison 33, little by little, you relinquished everything, starting with your tomorrows and all that might be. Next went your past, and suddenly it was inconceivable that your head had ever touched a pillow, that you’d once used a spoon or a toilet, that your mouth had once known flavors and your eyes had beheld colors beyond gray and brown and the shade of black that blood took on. Before you relinquished yourself – Ga had felt it starting, like the numb of cold limbs – you let go of all the others, each person you’d once known. They became ideas and then notions and then impressions, and then they were as ghostly as projections against a prison infirmary.
It is a love story as well, and it is the cry for individualism in a totalitarian state. The nameless interrogator’s final dreamlike thoughts express it best: I was on my own voyage. Soon I would be in a rural village, green and peaceful, where people swung their scythes in silence. There would be a widow there, and we would waste no time on courtship. I would approach her and tell her I was her new husband. We would enter the bed from opposite sides at first. For a while, she would have rules. But eventually, our genitals would intercourse in a way that was correct and satisfying. At night, after I had made my emission, we would lie there, listening to the sounds of our children running in the dark, catching summer frogs. My wife would have the use of both her eyes, so she would know when I blew out the candle. In this village, I would have a name, and people would call me by it. When the candle went out, she would speak to me, telling me to sleep very, very deeply…I listened for her voice, calling a name that would soon be mine.
Adam Johnson has written an epic novel, one that required research and a colossal imagination. Sign me up for his next work!