Is there a more dystopian setting for a novel than North Korea? Massive starvation, slave labor, hideous prison camps and endless propaganda barking from loudspeakers in the home and on the streets. The culture is so bizarre that at times it is comedic. How accurate the book is can’t be determined, no fact checking allowed in North Korea. Johnson spent years researching North Korea, including a trip to Pyongyang, but needless to say he didn’t have unfettered access.
In the first part of the book Pak Jon Du, grows up among orphans, but believes that he was in fact the orphan master’s son. His name is one of the 116 martyrs, names usually given to orphans, but the story he tells himself appears to be part of his survival method. During a countrywide famine most of the orphans die, but he ends up in the military. He learns to fight hand to hand which plays a large role in the plot. His jobs in the military vary, working in the tunnels under South Korea and kidnapping individuals from Japan in the dead of night. His career takes a number of strange turns, learning English, living on an ancient fishing vessel listening to broadcasts through the night, getting a secret assignment to Texas (yes, Texas) and then when it all goes wrong, prison camp.
Throughout the book the story is also told in part through the device of propaganda radio broadcasts. This is where much of the humor comes in: “Kelp-harvesting season will soon be upon us! Time to sterilize your jars and cans.” “This month’s cooking contest. . . Pumpkin Rind Soup!”
In the second part of the book, Jon Du has taken on the identity of General Ga. Ga is a feared military commander who is married to a beautiful film star: Sun Moon. Some of this part of the book is narrated by Ga’s interrogator. He lives with his elderly parents and in his life we see what “ordinary” life might look like. Kim Jong Il also plays a role, although in a comic book sort of way. We don’t see him making decisions that impact millions of people, we see him in the context of his love of an opera star and his rivalry with Ga for Sun Moon.
The Orphan Master’s Son is hard to pigeon hole into a genre, so I won’t try. It left me feeling that what is going on in North Korea is the cruelest trick played on 23 million people. It is sad to think that there is no end in sight.