Disbelief. That’s my initial reaction as I follow the life of orphan master’s son, Jun Do, in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Is this really what life is like in North Korea? Lives subjected to unrelenting propaganda from its one radio station, and unrelenting trauma, probably almost from birth if you’re an orphan?
As he grows up, Jun Do learns some things: He’s an orphan because his mother is pretty. It’s the fate of all pretty girls to be taken to the capital, Pyongyang. A parent expresses his love through punishment. And orphans may not really be orphans, just children abandoned by parents sent off to camps. As an orphan, you’re often selected to do shitty, sometimes dangerous jobs. People are helpless against disasters, which the government can turn into propaganda. Like a catastrophic flood euphemized as an “Arduous March.”
Jun Do becomes a tunnel soldier recruited into kidnapping people in Japan; first, just for practice; then, to abduct an opera singer who struck the fancy of some high official in Pyongyang. After many years doing kidnappings, he’s sent to language school to learn English.
Jun Do’s life is an incredible story that, to almost anybody in the Western world, might read like a dystopian novel. Much of it can seem unreal because it’s outside the pale of experiences of people you know. Yet, you can’t help feeling the book is telling you like it really is in North Korea. That though Jun Do/Commander Ga, Sun Moon, the Junma ship Captain, the Interrogator and all other characters in the story are fictitious, the reality the author created for them is, in fact, the reality for people you’ll never meet, living in certain parts of the world. People who cope with a constant state of trauma.
In Kim Jong Il country, the guiding principles seem to be blind obedience; cruel punishment even for activities done in the name and at the behest of the government; and belief and thought control not only at schools and training camps but through a continuous barrage of broadcasts, sometimes so way out there that they’re funny.
“Dear Leader” is an honorific every North Korean must use every time they refer or talk to Mr. Kim. His picture must be displayed everywhere people congregate. Its absence, like speaking ill of him, means painful repercussions. This wise, benevolent leader requires his subjects’ reverence .
Mr. Johnson has drawn his view of North Korea from articles (this, for example) we get in the West, interviews with defectors from North Korea, and a guided visit to that country where talking to a foreigner is a crime and “minders” are always present as a warning to watch what you say. The focus of Mr. Johnson’s interest seems to be on how particular individuals navigate a government Westerners would call unjust and unpredictable, with a megalomaniac despot at its helm.
How does one survive such a world? Jun Do does what many would probably do. He copes—obeys, doesn’t ask questions, and builds psychological defenses that allow him to ignore the pleas of kidnap victims and to take in stride such atrocities as sucking blood (the metaphor Mr. Johnson uses for atrocities) out of people left to die from hunger or disease. The country is in dire need of both food and medical care for the masses.
In other words, he’s a John Doe, lacking that sense of a unique self we value so much in the West. At least until he goes through brutalizing experiences that awakens, even strengthens the shred of humanity he still possesses. When the opportunity arises, Jun Do literally fights to the death for a new identity, a stolen one that brings with it power and love.
At Stanford University, Mr. Johnson teaches a popular class he calls “trauma narrative.” In psychology, therapists have used a set of techniques variously called narrative therapy, writing therapy or expressive writing that bears a strong resemblance to Mr. Johnson’s “trauma narrative.” In writing therapy, the author of the narrative is, of course, the person suffering from the trauma instead of a writer looking into and making sense of the sufferer’s life. Writing therapy’s objective is to heal. That of Mr. Johnson is to reveal the truth as he sees it.
Is the story of Jun Do a trauma narrative? It must be, and so are those of other characters. Does Adam Johnson’s trauma narrative fare well as fiction? I think, it does. In fact, I think it’s a great read. Especially if you’re curious about life in countries very different from your own and you’re not queasy about dark reality.
There’s at least one other reason I think this book is a a worthwhile read. It can give you pause about your own part of the world. For instance, I found Jun Do’s observations about American food and customs, while on a trip to Texas, gently humorous, but thought provoking as well. I also wonder how different our means of controlling people really are from those used in North Korea. See, for instance, The Engineering of Consent, a widespread Western practice.
The Orphan Master’s Son is a complex story that will tempt you to read it again. Subsequent readings will surely reveal other meanings and interpretations you missed on first read.