Still waiting for definitive fiction on North Korea
The Orphan Master’s Son
By Adam Johnson
Available at What The Book? in Itaewon
It’s tempting to look at “The Orphan Master’s Son” as a watershed moment: North Korea watchers (including me) regularly complain about how little the outside world knows about the rogue regime that the U.S. and South Korea have technically been at war with since 1950, and decry how this ignorance negatively affects policy. Human rights activists regularly lament the lack of “awareness” of the regime’s crimes, and how much its citizens need outside help.
Plus, anyone who has met a North Korean defector knows there’s an untapped treasure trove of stories to be told. Now along comes “Orphan Master,” written by critically acclaimed novelist and Stanford University professor Adam Johnson, with a story that could potentially open many eyes to the tragedy and comedy to be found north of the 38th parallel.
The story of Jun Do — a young man who grows up in a home for orphans, takes part in expeditions kidnapping Japanese, and who eventually assumes the identity of one of the North’s great heroes — has received acclaim from many corners, including reviewers at The Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. Johnson has clearly done his homework, accurately capturing details large and small, from Northern soldiers’ fear of harsh punishment when missions go awry, to the homophobia and obsession with virginal purity found in their propaganda, to even how they count years starting with Kim Il-sung’s birthday.
There are also instances that touchingly capture the humanity of North Koreans in an inhumane system: A father tells his son that there may come a day when he, the boy, must denounce his father as an “imperialist puppet” for the sake of survival, and assures his son that he will understand should that day arrive. The hero, alone with a lover who has come to hate Kim Jong-il and his regime, utters the opening line to “The Yellow Rose of Texas” because it’s the only part he knows of the only (Western) song he’s ever heard and the only (North Korean) one that has nothing to do with the Kim clan.
These moments, though, are spread out within a story that, while imaginative, is not really what the world needs to hear about North Korea.
Jun Do’s story of abducting Japanese civilians, becoming a translator, traveling to Texas on a diplomatic mission and then assuming the name of the fearsome North Korean Commander Ga has little to do with the life of the average Northerner. Its serious tone (and disorienting POV changes) also eliminates it from consideration as Ian Fleming-style escapism.
“Your Republic is Calling You” by Kim Young-ha, released in English in 2010, tells a story that rings truer, and I don’t think that’s just because Kim is Korean. It’s an unusual circumstance, to be sure: A North Korean spy must live as a South Korean for 20 years before being called home, but it effectively illustrated the difference between a regular South Korean’s life and that of his Northern counterparts.
Aravind Adiga’s “The White Tiger” in 2008 attempted a similar task as “Orphan Master,” to capture the injustices and absurdities of Indian society, but Johnson’s book lacks “Tiger’s” believable story, boundless wit and insider’s eye.
And even though Johnson, as a novelist, has the option of making up the details, “Orphan Master” cannot match true stories of North Korea like Barbara Demick’s “Nothing to Envy” or Kang Chol-Hwan’s “Aquariums of Pyongyang” in terms of either horror or eventual triumph.
Perhaps Johnson believed that it would take an epic story such as Jun Do’s to earn widespread attention. In a way I hope he is right, because more attention would certainly be a good thing: The North Koreans currently suffering from malnutrition and persecution need the spotlight; South Koreans, who long for unity, need the help, and those who want to tell great stories would have plenty of material to work with.
After “Orphan Master,” though, I feel the definitive fictional account of North Korea is still to be told.