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Orphan Masters Son by Adam Johnson

Orphan Masters Son (original 2012; edition 2012)

by Adam Johnson

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1,6461764,377 (4.06)245
Title:Orphan Masters Son
Authors:Adam Johnson
Info:Random House Export (2012), Paperback, 416 pages
Collections:Your library, Autographed
Tags:2012 Read, Literary Fiction, North Korean Fiction

Work details

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

  1. 80
    Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick (kqueue)
    kqueue: A non-fiction account of people in North Korea. The hardships they endure at the hands of their government are jaw-dropping. It backs up everything in The Orphan Master's Son.
  2. 10
    The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters by B. R. Myers (bibliothequaire)
  3. 10
    Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Henrik_Madsen)
    Henrik_Madsen: Guy Delisle has based his graphic novel on his own experiences from North Korea - it is definitely also worth a read.
  4. 00
    Sons of Heaven by Terrence Cheng (booklove2)
    booklove2: Main characters have similar personalities, also they both battle regimes.
  5. 00
    The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (Anonymous user)
  6. 00
    Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (aethercowboy)
  7. 01
    Number9Dream by David Mitchell (clfisha)
    clfisha: OK not really alike except in tone. A rollicking good adventure and playful narrative structure (Mitchell is more experimental).
  8. 13
    The Cider House Rules by John Irving (suniru)
    suniru: Although the settings are wildly different,the central figure in both books is the "head boy" in an orphanage. Also, "identity" is central to both books.

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In the realm of fictionally-created societies, there is a difference between dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature. In dystopian societies there has occurred a radical recasting of social and political institutions resulting in oppressive controls pervasively affecting vast populations and perverting the relationships among individuals and social classes. Such classic works as Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale depict how familiar political systems have been upended and replaced with totalitarian structures, often with putative moral justification that the state must protect its citizens from evil opponents from without. Apocalyptic novels (e.g. The Road) presuppose the utter dissolution of governing institutions by some catastrophic event and the consequent wrenching apart of law and social bonds of custom mediating human interactions.

Which genre is more disturbing? Though morbid in tone, post-apocalypticism is at least tempered by implicit notions of individualism and autonomy. Underlying the chaos and violence in ungoverned disintegrated politico-social structures is the sense that there is the potential for freedom of action, that an individual can make and execute personal decisions, if not always morally admirable at least possible. Dystopian societies are the opposite of chaotic; they are extraordinarily ordered; they prescribe to the basest degree acceptable and allowable thought, speech and behavior, all in the interests of maintaining supposed virtuous ideals. They massively suppress individuality and root out the slightest expressions of diversity of belief found in pluralistic compacts. Insidious manipulation of the populace through controlled education and propaganda succeeds in controlling large segments of the population. For those on whom these techniques do not work, divergence and deviance is subject to swift intervention and harsh punishment. Our depressive contemplation of the impact of totalitarian control over people in dystopian works may or may not be relieved if the protagonist wins out, but this victory is often a martyr’s victory.

Into the fold of great dystopian works comes The Orphan Master’s Son, certainly deserving a place in the ranks of classics of this genre. What makes it stand out is an important distinction from 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale and Brave New World. Unlike those fine works, which imagine new worlds by extrapolating from contemporary political and societal currents, The Orphan Master’s Son is based on an actual contemporary polity – the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). While certainly a work of fiction, this novel is based on research of the conditions existing in this closed and exceedingly repressive country. That this is not just a work of imagination (although it is highly imaginative), but has a connection with real conditions affecting an entire country makes it compelling and chilling.

The protagonist Jun Do (John Doe – Everyman?) was raised in an orphanage, although not an orphan himself. Jun’s mother had disappeared from his life in some mysterious way; there’s a suggestion that because of her beauty she was spirited to Pyongyang, the capital, to be the consort of some important person. The practice of the state-arranged matches for the interests or pleasure of the elite appears throughout the story. Orphans are looked down upon in Korean society, exploited in harsh ways. Jun is often assumed to be an orphan and he is used by the state in jobs over which he has no say. He is impressed to be a tunneler, working to infiltrate under the DMZ to attack or capture South Koreans. He has acquired great skill in martial arts along the way, something that becomes important later in the story. Because he has great night vision and physical skills he is compelled to take part in kidnapping raids in Japan, where persons are snatched from the beaches and transported to North Korea. One of the abductees was an opera singer, kidnapped because of Kim Il Sung’s (the “Dear Leader”) obsession with opera. The incidents of kidnapping in the book are based on actual occurrences.

Jun is transferred to a military school where he is taught English so that he can intercept transmissions from American naval vessels off the coast. The fishing vessel on which he carries out his spy work is boarded by the US Navy and several incidents occur that the Korean regime distorts into heroic actions by Jun and a fellow crew member. The government has a penchant for creating “heroes” to present to the people to enhance their fervor. The importance of stories to the regime’s control of the people is an important theme of the novel.

Because of Jun’s English fluency he is tapped to accompany a delegation to the US where negotiations to return an item captured by the US are to occur. The scenes in the US – in Texas – are quite comical, but Jun is recruited by a CIA operative to take a special camera back to Korea that will transmit pictures back to America.

Returning from America, Jun and his colleagues come under suspicion only because of their close association with Americans. Jun is imprisoned in one of North Korea’s horrendous prison labor camps. He labors without hope of survival in a mining colony until into the prison the famous Commander Ga appears. Ga is a national hero, a Tae Kwan Do expert who has gained fame through his martial arts victories. Though a prominent figure, Ga is somewhat of a rival to the Dear Leader, spared from sanction only by his usefulness to the regime’s propagandistic uses of him. He is married to the nation’s leading actress, Sun Moon. As Minister of Mines, Ga pays a visit to the prison mining camp where he encounters Jun and, deep in a shaft, Ga challenges Jun to a bout. (Ga is alluded to be a homosexual who uses his authority to assault others.) Jun kills Ga and manages to escape from prison by audaciously impersonating Ga.

As Jun shows up in Pyongyang a fascinating aspect of his trickery manifests – he fools no one who knows Ga, and everyone acts as if he is Ga. He goes to Sun Moon at the Ga home and she immediately recognizes him as an imposter. Nonetheless, Sun takes him in her home and while not allowing him to replace Ga in private, in public she acts as if he’s Ga. She knows she needs Ga to keep her place in the social/political structure. Ga’s colleagues and Jun’s associates all know that he is not the true Ga. When appearing before Kim Il Sung, even Kim treats him as if he were Ga. Everyone behaves in ways that perpetuate the fraud; it is essential to the façade erected by the regime that there continues to be a “Ga” for public consumption.

The novel introduces another character – the interrogator. The scene shifts to an underground secret police cell where Ga/Jun is a captive being questioned. There has been an incident that has finally undermined Ga’s favor with the Dear Leader. The incident involved Sun Moon and a return visit of the American negotiators – the details not revealed here.

The interrogator, unlike his brutish partners, eschews violent torture techniques by trying to get Ga to tell his true story. The interrogator has created a library of “biographies” that contain personal stories of the condemned. They may be the closest to the truth that exists in the DPRK, but the interrogator knows that the “biographies” will never be seen by anyone. While this is occurring, the propaganda arm of the government has been broadcasting a serialized short story to the public over loudspeakers in residential and public buildings. Notwithstanding Ga’s incarceration and his impending doom, his public persona is still vitally important to the government. The dramatic story makes out Ga to be a mythical hero whose actions have foiled the evil intentions and acts of DPRK’s enemies.

Controlling identity through coercion or manipulation is critically important to the state’s maintenance of power over the people. Likewise, for individuals creating an identity is essential to personal self-preservation. For the people of North Korea, however, an element of self-delusion becomes necessary. Maintaining a “safe” identity is not a simple matter of a showing a public face while holding on to a true private identity. As seen through the interrogator’s aged parents, there is a psychologically ambiguous – almost unconscious – melding of one’s multiple identities that creates a deep personal corruption. This is certainly the most nefarious power of the state – its most vile damage to people.

To our democratic, open-society’s sensibilities, the notion that such blatantly manipulative approaches can perpetuate authoritarian control seems almost ridiculous; certainly it must be just terror that keeps people down. But that’s not so. The distortions and falsehoods continually and pervasively inculcated throughout the public become, in very disturbing ways, acceptable and, worse, accepted. One pauses to wonder if, in our western culture, the creation of public “identities” and the manipulation of truth is perhaps even more insidious, stemming as it does from multiple sources with a variety of motivations. We don’t have the coercion of totalitarianism, but perhaps the influence of “stories” (i.e. corporate, media, governmental, etc.) on us is as much or more a risk to our personal selves. ( )
  stevesmits | Feb 24, 2015 |
At the end of the audio book, Johnson talks about how he traveled to North Korea as part of his research, something I wasn’t even aware that it was possible to do. It’s clear that he put in a lot of time performing research, though I’m still not sure how much of this book is imagination versus “reality”. If even a portion of this book reflects actual conditions in North Korea, then it paints a horrifying picture.

I didn’t know what to think of this story at first, but it Jun Do’s tale quickly became riveting, as he was moved through various positions in North Korea, from kidnapper to radio operator to a visitor to Texas on a not-so-diplomatic mission. It was fascinating to see how Jun Do held on to his autonomy in subtle ways, through an internal world and perception of his life. This story surprised me several times as it unfolded, and it was one of the few audio books that I listened to compulsively. Really fantastic. ( )
  andreablythe | Feb 17, 2015 |
This book set me wanting to find out more about North Korea - mostly because I simply don't trust the narrator. By narrator I don't mean Jun Do, or Commander Ga, or the party functionary in the interrogation squad, but the authorial voice behind all of these voices. There are many great writers about totalitarianism and corrupt and absurd states, who use imagination to depict the banality and warped imagination of the all powerful leader and the subjected state, but Johnson's voice is flat ( I struggle to differentiate between the different first person narrators) and he never begins to answer the question of why anyone would stay in North Korea and live as part of the regime - brainwashing would be the answer, I imagine, but I don't really buy this as a depiction of that. There are some lovely set pieces, mostly at the start, and the concept of a Korean everyman, going through a picaresque journey through a mad country, is great. But if Johnson had cut this down to about a quarter of a length and sharpened up the satire, then it might have been a much better book
  otterley | Feb 2, 2015 |
This is a novel that keeps you thinking about it during the day even when you aren't reading it, one you won't forget. Life in North Korea is only about survival, and on the rare occasion something good happens, it is credited to their "dear" leader. Even during the famine, people would feel bad for Kim Jong Il because he had the burden of seeing his citizens suffer. Hard to fathom, but apparently they actually do think this way and aren't allowed to have feelings or emotions for themselves, only for the greater glory of their country and leader. Heartbreaking and horrifying to know that even tho this is literary fiction, the depiction of North Korean life is true. ( )
  Rozey | Jan 30, 2015 |
This book is good the way "Henderson the Rain King" , or Catch-22, or Orhan Pamuk's "Snow" is good. Like these novels, "The Orphan Master's Son" balances on a knife-edge between high tragedy and farce. No matter how unbelievable the action in the novel is, I still feel the humanity of Jun Doh, the same way I felt Yossarian's or Henderson's or Ka's. I feel pity for him. I want him to triumph. Through this obviously fictional character I feel more connected with real people, which is what the best fiction can do. The writing is so vivid that I feel the humanity of even the most minor characters, such as a girl who sinks into the water and drowns after a bungled kidnapping attempt, while her abductors are left holding her cell phone with the girl's mother on the other end. It's great, great writing whenever an author can wrench something so vivid and harrowing from a 1-paragraph encounter. Johnson does it again and again.

But four stars, not five. I don't want to go so far as to call this story "appropriative," because I believe fiction writers have the right to imagine themselves into any character and any culture, however remote from their own. But please, don't call it real. Don't pretend that the fictional Dear Leader has anything to do with the real Dear Leader. Don't veer between the ridiculous--scenes where the protagonist willingly suffers a shark bite to make for a better cover story, for example--and scenes cribbed from actual historical events. Better to be altogether ridiculous--like Catch 22. Joseph Heller had a lot to say about the inhumanity of war, but he never claimed Catch-22 was historically accurate.

I've been a little dismayed by the author interviews for the book for this reason, as well as the "discussion questions" at the back of my book that ask me to ponder what I've learned about North Korea after reading this novel. However much I think Adam Johnson is an extraordinary writer, I don't think he should be implying that his book is anything other than pure fiction. Conflating fact and fiction can cast doubt on the real, and North Korea is already unbelievable enough. There is already enough fiction ("lying?") going on in modern memoirs, to the point where North Korean memoirists might have trouble being believed, since their experiences are so extreme. It would have been far better if Johnson had not made a single claim of doing more than writing a terrific novel. Isn't that enough? ( )
  poingu | Jan 29, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 173 (next | show all)
"Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended. "
added by Christa_Josh | editLibrary Journal, Susanne Wells (Nov 1, 2011)

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Citizens, gather 'round your loudspeakers, for we bring important updates!
The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.
Compared to forgetting, did living really stand a chance?
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Book description
An epic novel and a thrilling literary discovery, The Orphan Master’s Son follows a young man’s journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world’s most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the haunted son of a lost mother—a singer “stolen” to Pyongyang—and an influential father who runs Long Tomorrows, a work camp for orphans. There the boy is given his first taste of power, picking which orphans eat first and which will be lent out for manual labor. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, Jun Do comes to the attention of superiors in the state, rises in the ranks, and starts on a road from which there will be no return.

Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master’s Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love. A towering literary achievement, The Orphan Master’s Son ushers Adam Johnson into the small group of today’s greatest writers.
Haiku summary
Disturbing account
Of North Korea under
Kim Jong-Il. Tough stuff.

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0812992792, Hardcover)

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, January 2012

Adam Johnson on The Orphan Master's Son

When I arrived at Pyongyang's Sunan Airport a few years ago, my head was still spinning from a landing on a runway lined with cattle, electric fences and the fuselages of other jets whose landings hadn't gone so well. Even though I'd spent three years writing and researching The Orphan Master's Son, I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter in “the most glorious nation in the world.”

I'd started writing about North Korea because of a fascination with propaganda and the way it prescribes an official narrative to an entire people. In Pyongyang, that narrative begins with the founding of a glorious nation under the fatherly guidance of Kim Il Sung, is followed by years of industry and sacrifice among its citizenry, so that when Kim Jong Il comes to power, all is strength, happiness and prosperity. It didn't matter that the story was a complete fiction--every citizen was forced to become a character whose motivations, desires and fears were dictated by this script. The labor camps were filled with those who hadn't played their parts, who'd spoken of deprivation instead of plenitude and the purest democracy.

When I visited places like Pyongyang, Kaesong City, Panmunjom and Myohyangsan, I understood that a genuine interaction with a North Korean citizen was unlikely, since contact with foreigners was illegal. As I walked the streets, not one person would risk a glance, a smile, even a pause in their daily routine. In the Puhung Metro Station, I wondered what happened to personal desires when they came into conflict with a national story. Was it possible to retain a personal identity in such conditions, and under what circumstances would a person reveal his or her true nature? These mysteries--of subsumed selves, of hidden lives, of rewritten longings--are the fuel of novels, and I felt a powerful desire to help reveal what a dynastic dictatorship had forced these people to conceal.

Of course, I could only speculate on those lives, filling the voids with research and imagination. Back home, I continued to read books and seek out personal accounts. Testimonies of gulag survivors like Kang Chol Hwan proved invaluable. But I found that most scholarship on the DPRK was dedicated to military, political and economic theory. Fewer were the books that focused directly on the people who daily endured such circumstances. Rarer were the narratives that tallied the personal cost of hidden emotions, abandoned relationships, forgotten identities. These stories I felt a personal duty to tell. Traveling to North Korea filled me with a sense that every person there, from the lowliest laborer to military leaders, had to surrender a rich private life in order to enact one pre-written by the Party. To capture this on the page, I created characters across all levels of society, from the orphan soldier to the Party leaders. And since Kim Jong Il had written the script for all of North Korea, my novel didn't make sense without writing his role as well.

Featured Photographs

Anti-tank devices seen while traveling south from Pyongyang toward Panmunj
  DPRK soldier
  Air raid sirens
  Revelutionary Martyr's Cemetery on Mount Taesong

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:55:18 -0400)

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The son of an influential father who runs an orphan work camp, Pak Jun Do rises to prominence using instinctive talents and eventually becomes a professional kidnapper and romantic rival to Kim Jong Il.

(summary from another edition)

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