Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Review: The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son
Adam Johnson
464 Pages
Random House
Published January 2012

If I'm lucky, I'll have the opportunity to read two or three books each year that remind me why I love books more than any other form of art.  Last year I had the good fortune to read four books really excellent books: Tinkers by Paul Harding, The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.  I'm happy to report that The Orphan Master's Son is the first book of 2012 to absolutely blow me away.

On the surface, The Orphan Master's Son is the story of Pak Jun Do and his rise from an orphanage to the upper tiers of North Korean society.  Pak Jun Do becomes a part of the North Korean military and quickly rises through the ranks.  He begins as a tunnel fighter and learns the art of combat in total darkness and later becomes a professional kidnapper, traveling to other nations to steal people and bring them back to North Korea.  He spends time as a secret radio operator, working below the decks of a fishing vessel, intercepting radio transmissions from the enemies of North Korea.  His final mission is to be part of a delegation of North Koreans sent to Texas on behalf of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il.  And this is just the first half of the story.

What really struck me about The Orphan Master's Son was how North Korea seemed like some kind of bizarre parallel universe.  In North Korea, if the Dear Leader says the sky is green then it is green and Dear Leader is praised for seeing beyond the propaganda of the evil west to understand that the true color is the sky is a brilliant shade of emerald green and that anyone who says the sky is blue is a lying dog. In North Korea the rules may lack simple logic, but the punishment is swift and brutal.
Where we are from... stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro.  And secretly, he'd be wise to start practicing the piano.  For us, the story is more important than the person.  If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.
The story is told from Jun Do's perspective and occasionally we are reminded that he has a skewed outlook on things.  But sometimes his observations make us aware of the biases and propaganda in our own society. For example, when Jun Do travels to Texas to meet with the Americans, he is in awe over how the dogs are treated.
When the dogs returned, the Senator gave them treats from his pocket, and Jun Do understood that in communism, you'd threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.
The second half of the book contains a drastic shift in the delivery of the story.  Instead of simply getting Jun Do's perspective, we get the rest of the story as state propaganda and also through the eyes of a state interrogator.  The story really gets exciting in this second half, as Jun Do somehow takes on the identity of the second most powerful man in North Korea, Commander Ga, despite looking nothing like him.  The tale of how Jun Do escapes from a prison camp, assumes a new identity and comes to interact with the Dear Leader himself is given in bits and pieces and as the complete story takes shape, it's clear that Jun Do's future is uncertain and that the foundation of his new life is built of loose sand.

The Orphan Master's Son is everything I look for in a great book.  It has a gripping story and a main character that you can't help but love.  There is, of course, a love story and a villain, the ever-present Dear Leader.  The story-telling is imaginative and at times reminded me of Murakami's fantastic tales, but very much based in reality.  In the end, I think what I love some much about this book is that while the story is certainly fictional, the environment in which it takes place is real.  The propaganda, the fear, the warped-reality, it's all real.  It makes for some funny moments, but it's also deeply sad and sometimes painful.  Imagine living in a place where even the most powerful people need to have a plan in place for when the government turns against them.  Imagine your best friend disappears and some new guy shows up in his place, inheriting the old guy's job, his home, his family.
"A name isn't a person," Ga said. "Don't ever remember someone by their name.  To keep someone alive, you put them inside you, you put their face on your heart.  Then, no matter where you are, they're always with you because they're a part of you."
It has literally taken me months to write this review.  I've lost track of the number of times that I've deleted it and started fresh.  There's too much to say, too many ways to come at it.  The Orphan Master's Son is the kind of book that will stay with me for a long time, asking me to look at the world with open eyes.  I wish I was part of a book club so I could sit and talk it over for a few hours with friends.  I want to share it with everyone that loves literature.  I want to swim in it and breathe it into my lungs.  And so I don't think I could ever do it justice in a blog post.  I just want you to know that I loved my reading experience and I hope that others love it too.

Book Source: NetGalley

Bonus Content: Adam Johnson interview at The Paris Review

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