Most of The Orphan Master’s Son focuses on a North Korean man named after a government-appointed martyr whose name, Pak Jun Do, resembles “John Doe” for a reason. The book is at once a grand adventure, a hallucinatory ordeal, a deft spy story and a treatise on how the dogmas forced on people by ruthless institutions peel away truth and eventually even identity.
The book’s first section describes Pak Jun Do’s unlikely ascent to hero status. The rest of the book veers into something like magical realism gone wrong, where all the fantastical plot shifts and dreamlike moments are caused by the fear engendered by North Korea’s brutal regime.
Pak Jun Do and the others who live under Kim Jong Il are always prepared to hew to a reality in which all things glorify their Dear Leader. The stories they tell investigators and interrogators, the statements they make at work and in mandatory “criticism sessions,” and even private conversations among family members, are correspondingly nonsensical, and author Adam Johnson uses this absurdity to fuel Pak Jun Do’s bizarre journey from orphan to hero, from prisoner to politician.
Pak Jun Do’s identity is built on one such fiction, namely that, despite living in an orphanage, he is not an orphan. The boy decides he is actually the orphan master’s son mainly because the man treats him so badly: “Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel.”
The privilege of deciding which orphans do the merely menial jobs and which take the tasks more likely to be fatal also falls to Pak Jun Do—another sign, in his mind, of his true-born status—and the author implies that this may be at the root of his unwillingness to adhere completely to the rules of his society.
His ability to unmoor himself from the dogma is stymied somewhat by the simple fact that he has never known, or even glimpsed any other way of life, until he is recruited by the regime for various incursions into Japan, a mission monitoring radio transmissions from the hold of a fishing boat and, eventually, a surreal trip to Texas.
The moments when Pak Jun Do’s received knowledge collides with the reality of the wider world are stunningly effective on their own, and also as a backdrop for the catalog of humiliation that grows with Pak Jun Do’s every return home. Johnson’s presentation of the young man on the cold, cramped fishing boat, listening to radio transmissions from around the world night after night, zeroing in on the reflections of a particularly pensive American athlete who is trying to row around the globe, would stand alone as a gorgeous short story.
The tone of the book shifts, just as Pak Jun Do and almost everyone he comes into contact with have to constantly change their stories to avoid the labor camps and interrogators. Ultimately, even the identities of the book’s central characters prove malleable. Johnson adeptly manipulates these changes in mood, moving from trance-inducing lyricism to black humor to noir.
Ultimately, the lies surrounding Pak Jun Do force him into a laughably preposterous situation, and Johnson treads the line between absurdity and abandon so ably that the book is impossible to put down. Finding humanity and humor, not to mention a page-turning plot, amid the daily degradation of North Korean life is no small achievement.
In the end, Pak Jun Do’s quest, and Johnson’s balancing act, may be best summed up by one of the many government interrogators who populate the book’s pages: “To survive in this world, you got to be many times a coward but at least once a hero. At least, that’s what a guy told me one time when I was beating the shit out of him.”
Adam Johnson appears at Quail Ridge Books Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 7:30 p.m.