The Orphan Master’s Sonby Adam Johnson
Reviewed by Raul
The first thing to know about Adam Johnson’s marvelous book is that nothing is as it seems. The protagonist, after an arduous childhood, does not really have a name. Like many things in North Korea, appearance is more important than substance; thus, his name is that of one taken from a martyr’s grave, the name of some war hero who died resisting the influences of the West in the Korean War. That his mother was a beautiful singer whisked off to Pyongyang only enhances this dream-like quality of his existence.
His story must be like a lot of stories from North Korea – his main education was from the military, but as an “orphan” his career is necessarily limited. There are historical precedents for the kidnapping of Japanese citizens that he partakes in early in the book. There are also references to tunnels below the DMZ where his training takes place – also something very real to the troops who patrol both sides.
Johnson’s story takes a radical turn when our hero ends up in Texas of all places. As part of a political delegation sent to humiliate the West, he is charged by the head delegate to make sure the Texans cook the “tiger meat” they have brought to see if there is offense in eating an endangered animal. Our hero helps the Americans save face when he innocently suggests they use some other meat for no one will note the difference.
This is what makes his book so intriguing – you never know what side this guy is playing for! There are so many shades to his character that it is hard to pin him down. At first, he is the party loyalist, then he is a detractor; next he is the orphan who has nothing, then he has taken over the life of a top military commander. He gains a family as well in his role as commander, but is there really love when his wife acknowledges him as her husband, knowing the whole time that he is not the man she married? Apparently this is also not uncommon in North Korea – the party is held together by ideas, not reality. In the end it does not matter that he is not her real husband; what is important is that she had the same husband she has always had – thus preserving the party’s ideal.
This ambiguity is foreign to us in the states, for we are used to things being real. In Johnson’s fictional take on North Korea, there is opportunity to illustrate just how different life is in this strange country. His book is an open letter to metaphorically examine the North Korean state of mind. Engaging and well paced, The Orphan Master’s Son will charm and terrify you at the same time.
Adam Johnson reads from The Orphan Master’s Son here at BookPeople Tuesday, September 4 at 7pm.