Most people, I think, if asked to list the “Top Ten Worst Governments in the World,” would find a spot for North Korea’s somewhere in their first five choices. Even then, however, the problem with trying to rank North Korea within such a list is that everyday life there is still pretty much a black hole to casual observers. But novels such as Adam Johnson’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner The Orphan Master’s Son often shed enough light on these black holes that outsiders are able to study the horrors within them.
The orphan master’s son in question is Park Jun Do, a boy partially responsible for the relative wellbeing of the orphan boys under his “father’s” authority. Jun Do, in fact, by deciding where to place the boys in state-mandated work details, ultimately decides which of them are to live longest and under exactly what circumstances most of them will die. Orphans in North Korea do not have a bright future.
But this is only the beginning for Park Jun Do. The boy has certain skills that are valuable enough to the State that his life, may it turn out to be a long one or a short one, is destined to be an interesting one. Before it ends, Jun Do will have spied for his Dear Leader via the tunnels that penetrate well into South Korea; will have kidnapped unsuspecting victims from the beaches of Japan; and will have learned English well enough to serve both as a translator of radio broadcasts and as part of a diplomatic team sent on a special mission to the U.S. And when that U.S. mission ends in humiliating failure, Jun Do’s life really gets interesting.
The Orphan Master’s Son is told in two parts: “The Biography of Jun Do” and “The Confessions of Commander Ga.” In the second part, Jun Do proves just what a survivor he is, even within a political system in which a citizen can be denounced for the most trivial oversight – a process that most often places its victims into the hands of ruthless interrogators, only to be later carted off to prisons for the rest of their suddenly truncated lives.
Jun Do’s life, challenging and painful as it sometimes is, is an adventure that Adam Johnson fits together like a puzzle for his readers. The author uses three very different narrators to tell Jun Do’s story: a third person narrator for the “biography” portion of the book, a first person narrator in the guise of a rather softhearted State interrogator for much of the second part of the book, and “live” broadcasts via loudspeakers used to spread daily propaganda radio messages to the Dear Leader’s people. Johnson also uses flashbacks to illuminate details about significant events and relationships in Jun Do’s life well after that character’s ultimate fate has been revealed.
That the structure of The Orphan Master’s Son is not a conventional one may require the reader to work a bit harder than usual, but the author tells a truly memorable and shocking story. I highly recommend this prizewinner to anyone curious about what daily life in North Korea might be like.