The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson

I. M-Day

The Vietnam War ended for Americans when I was a teenager. It was remarkably unpopular by then, especially on the campuses of the American Northeast (where I grew up). But before the party ended, I did manage to get in on the action of one of the more fashionable anti war demonstrations of the age, a massively attended nationwide sit-in called M-Day (forgotten now, though the Boston Globe assured us at the time it was an event off historic proportion). M stood for moratorium, I think, but perhaps it was mobilization. Mobilization would have sounded more revolutionary, and Bolshevik rhetoric was the done thing at the time. But it might as well have stood for milk-and-cookies. My teachers were there. So were my parents. So were these mini-skirted college girls--very much the focus of my peer group's attention. Girls said yes, we had heard even then, to boys who said no.

The reigning Zeitgeist of those benighted days informed us that communism was just another way of doing things--a pretty good one, actually--and that those who thought otherwise were dangerously or at least comically paranoid. rumors of mass killings sometimes drifted on the wind, but potential apostates were quickly (and often derisively) reminded of the Red Scare. We knew that just before our time, many Americans had come to believe that a significant fifth column existed among their fellow citizens. Those who had signed petitions or naively joined Communist organizations as students provided low-hanging fruit for the hysteria. Careers and reputations were destroyed with little in the way of due process (nota bene, #me toosies). There were also real American Communists, of course, and a small number of them (according to records released in the Yeltsin era) were spying for the Soviets. But Arthur Miller? Give us break, comrade.

Then, as later on M-Day, the question was what to believe when emotions ran high and most facts were unavailable. Shortly after the war, refugees from a communist regime in Cambodia began to tell tales almost too grisly to believe. But the Khmer Rouge had sealed off Phnom Penh and little confirmatory information got out at first (besides, we had just left Indo-China and damned if we were going back). Likewise, atrocities of Mao's Red Guard occurred in what was then a society closed to the West. Soviet dissidents and defectors occasionally begged to differ with the affluent liberals of my youth. Some of us shouted them down before they could finish their comments (whereas, in Soviet Union, comments finish you). Others lionized them despite taking little action. In fairness, there wasn't a lot anyone could do at the time.

The facts, when they did emerge, came through a small window on the Soviet-era archives, which Boris Yeltsin drunkenly pried open and Vladimir Putin sullenly slammed shut. The Soviet Union turns out to have been more horrific than even the nuttiest McCarthyite ever fantasized. The entire system (as documented in Ann Applebaum's Pulitzer Prize winning history Gulag) was in effect a series of overlapping labor camps, something like Russian nesting dolls. Everyone belonged to the structure on some level. The notorious gulags were not anomalies--they were just deep in the same normal. At the other end was a tiny elite; its members' lives were also at peril and many died very hard deaths. Economic historian and Harvard professor Niall Ferguson demonstrated that the Soviet Union possessed what amounts to a slave economy. Conservative estimates place deaths caused by the Soviet system at between 15 and 20 million, though some put the toll higher by tens of millions. The sacrifices of Soviet Socialists turn out to have been made in the drone slavery of their own concentration camp.

In the words of left-ish cartoonist Jules Feiffer when the Soviet Union finally fell: "I can live with my being wrong but not with their [conservative Americans'] being right."

But in fact, we M-Day oglers of miniskirts were simply doing our best with the limited information available. The Cambodian refugees mentioned above demonstrate the problem. According to A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power (then a Harvard professor, later Obama's UN Secretary), those who escaped the Pol Pot horror were officially disbelieved at first because refugees who seek American military intervention typically fabricate atrocity stories. The shocking details the Cambodians related only fortified the impression that they were lying. But before condemning US embassy workers in Thailand as homicidally obtuse, one should recall the intelligence fabrications that led to the Iraq War. George W. Bush's credulity is now notorious, but even in the run up to the first Gulf War, I remember this traumatized maternity nurse who had witnessed Iraqi soldiers emptying incubators into the streets of Kuwait. Unfortunately (as revealed after the war) the supposed nurse was actually the daughter of a Kuwaiti embassy official in Washington and had never even been to Kuwait. That doesn't mean Saddam Hussein wasn't a homicidal goon--he was. It just means you have to be wary. Those who stand to gain from your children's death will sing you any song they think you want to hear.

Which brings me at last to my review of Adam Johnson's Pulitzer Prize Winning novel, The Orphan Master's Son, a bleak and brooding epic set in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Johnson researched his novel with a trip to North Korea, and much more importantly with interviews of defectors. Whether The Orphan Master's Son is a human cry in the face of an inhuman monstrosity or just simply a delusion rests almost entirely on their credibility. And that's something we can't know, because (for now at least) North Korea is a hermetically sealed society. Welcome to M-Day.

II. Circles of Hell

One may be forgiven for taking The Orphan Master's Son as a picaresque novel. It's structure is episodical. It incorporates elements of humor and satire into its narrative. Its protagonist, Jun Do, while far from a rogue, is not untainted by the system (none is), and like all the other metaphorical orphans, he must get by on his wits. Jun Do is "a nobody from nowhere" (John Doe, get it?): a nobody in a world where individuality is a crime; from nowhere, a literal (if ironic) translation of which is Utopia. He is the son of the keeper of an asylum for children euphemistically called orphans. Their parents have been sent to labor camps so they may as well be dead. But Jun Do's father has almost no part in the story; the orphan master of the title is Communist system that owns the orphans it has made and (inevitably) the Dear Leader, Kim Jong -il, Korea's homicidal father, and a major character in the novel's second half. As the orphan master's metaphorical son, Jun Do's life meanders from the bleak to the horrific to the absurd. But unlike most picaresque heroes, he is capable of transforming himself. By the novel's end (having long since shed his name) the orphan master's son reaches a kind of self determination. Whether he achieves redemption is for the reader to say.

Johnson's unwieldy plot and disjointed narrative structure works well with characters who have had the trajectory of their individual ground to nothing. There is a third person narrative of Jun Do's life (and a separate one of his later life with a different name); a propaganda rendition of the same story given over a mandatory government broadcast system; and the first person reflections of an idealistic, young torturer for the government's security wing.

Jun Do's world is a kind of hell. Any mistakes-- the slightest hindrance to the often arbitrary whims of the Pyongyang elites--leads into a deeper circle of damnation. Slavery in a uranium mine in the Siberian cold of the northern mountains is a probability for many. Even if you never screw up, having a defector in a family gets everyone else sent to a camp (children, too, for whom special little pickaxes are manufactured). Life expectancy for an adult is six months. Camp hospitals contains no medicine. Their only functions are to drain plasma for the Pyongyang elites from those too injured to work; and to perform makeshift abortions on female inmates (pregnant presumably from rape). Escape is not an option--there's no place to go in those remote mountains--though some still try. Once caught, they are taken back to camp, buried to their waists, and stoned to hamburger by other inmates. Those who refuse to participate are also killed. You get the idea.

Outside the camps, the key to survival is adopting the government's mandated fictions or, in a pinch, concocting lies of your own. It doesn't matter that no one really believes your lies. If they are the politically useful lies, you have a fighting chance. Jun Do serves for a time on a fishing trawler, where he conducts radio surveillance operations. The ship a reeking dump, but being at sea is a comparatively free life, and he likes it. But when sailors from the US Navy board the ship and use Jun Do's radio to deliver a taunting message to Pyongyang, prospects of the camps loom for the entire crew. The men save themselves by fabricating a story about how one of the mates resisted the imperialists with a single knife and drove them off in fear. The story is hardly credible, but it is useful to the government's domestic propaganda, so (after having the mate severely beaten in an attempt to get him to confess to the lie), the government opts to make him a national hero. The trawler is awarded the luxury of a lifeboat.

But when the same mate uses the lifeboat to try to defect (but probably drowns), the men face the same prospects. This time, the best they can come up with is to say the humiliated Americans came back and threw the mate to the sharks. Jun Do heroically attempted to save him, but alas, the sharks prevailed. I forget what they say happened to the lifeboat--maybe the Americans took it. To make the ridiculous story stick, they hoist a shark on board and provoke it to bite Jun Do's leg. After the security agent is finished beating him, he tells Jun Do they both knew the story is a lie. But since the lie is politically useful, the thug certifies his heroism.

Being a state hero means Jun Do can advance upwards through the concentric circles of hell. He is assigned to an ill conceived diplomatic mission to the United States. He had in fact moved upwards to the fishing ship because he had served for a time as a state kidnapper of civilians from Japanese beaches. But if he had confessed his lie to the thug who was beating him, he would have fallen into a deep circle of the prison mines. And if the diplomatic mission fails, the same fate awaits him. This constant enslavement to one circle of hell or another is reminiscent of Anne Applebaum's analogy of Russian nesting dolls for the overlapping gulags of the old Soviet Union. All are prisoners on some level.

III. The Autopilot

In an especially horrific level of hell sits the idealistic torturer. His is not a valued seat. In fact, he sees himself as something of a loser. Most of the Pubyok--the old guard thugs and torturers--agree. He is trying to modernize the state security apparatus by removing what he sees as its ugliness--its torture by beatings, by chaining detainees in basements filled with their own waste and electrocuting them with cattle prods, by introducing rubber tubes to irrigate their gastrointestinal systems past endurance. His program seeks to reform detainees so they can begin new lives of productive labor in happy peasant villages. When he arrived, this was done in the old style: an assistant would hold the detainees head immobile while the idealistic young torturer sat on his or her chest and performed what used to be called an ice pick lobotomy:

"All you needed was a twenty-centimeter nail. You’d lay the subject out on a table and sit on his chest. Leonardo, standing, would steady the subject’s head, and with his thumbs, hold both eyelids open. Careful not to puncture anything, you’d run the nail in along the top of the eyeball, maneuvering it until you felt the bone at the back of the socket. Then with your palm, you gave the head of the nail a good thump. After punching through the orbital, the nail moved freely through the brain. Then it was simple: insert fully, shimmy to the left, shimmy to the right, repeat with other eye."

But the idealistic young torturer brings changes to the program. He conducts interviews with his subjects, slowly gaining their confidence, even a kind of intimacy. Most have done little out of order; they are simply the victims of anonymous denunciations by one sort of enemy or another. They explain their life stories in close detail--what they have done, what they have not done, and their extreme willingness to cooperate in their present circumstances. The idealistic young torturer records everything in writing and binds the finished work for inclusion in a library of confessions. He considers his occupation to be biographer.

When the long, shared effort is over, the idealistic young torturer introduces his real innovation to the program: a baby blue item of furniture similar to a dentist chair, which is attached to a devise known as the autopilot. An electrical charge (probably) too low to result in death is introduced into the detainees body and allowed to circulate for half a day.

"So we ramp up the pain to inconceivable levels, a shifting, muscular river of pain. Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity—the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the [one] who now begins the crossing."

The biography remains in the library. The "new man" of socialism goes to labor in the fields. As the torturer later comments: "Here, a citizen was separated from his story. That was my job. Of the two, it was the story that was kept, while the person was disposed of."

The idealistic young torturer is the most terrifying character in The Orphan Master's Son because he alone is not cynical about the system. He simply believes its problems to be fixable. And he considers himself a humane influence help people," he insists. "I save people from the treatment they’d get from those Pubyok animals." But though terrifying, he is not a awesome figure. He is, in fact, the pathetic loser he imagines himself to be. He is sexually immature and not above molesting a pretty nurse as she writhes in the autopilot's chair (her pubic hair crackling with electricity). He steals from his victims, too, including taking their wedding jewelry. He barters his spoils at the black market in return for food for himself and his parents, at least one of whom is blind (the other possibly faking it). The elderly couple are incapable of having an unguarded conversation with one another for fear of denunciation. They know what their son does for a living and treat him with a mixture of fear and contempt. As his mother puts it: "[W]e do not need sight to see what you have become."

IV. Realism

The torturer's tale opens the second part of The Orphan Master's Son, and with it, certain fissures in the plot begin to develop. There is a symbolic aspect to his story which moves the novel just slightly from the strict realism that prevailed in Part One. The library of lives separated from their former owners is clearly intended to represent the dehumanization the DPRK visits on its own citizens. The torturer, however modern and dispassionate he envisions himself, is really just a ghoul at this tomb of ex-persons. Johnson is here using fiction to make a point. No such library likely exists, and even the autopilot has a certain science fiction-ish quality to it. This does not impair the story's underlying verisimilitude (there are plenty of low tech ways to prolong excruciating pain), but it begins a movement toward greater fictional license in the book's second half. In a novel that seeks to pierce the DPRK's cloak of darkness, this can have a somewhat diminishing effect. And the fault line, unfortunately, broadens as the second half progresses.

A greater step in the wrong direction has (ironically) been praised by some critics. Johnson boldly uses Kim Jong-il himself as a character in the novel's second half. This is admittedly a daring move. Kim was still in office while Johnson was writing The Orphan Master's Son (he died a few months before its publication), and a credible Kim would certainly have upped the realism. But it was probably always a lost cause. Johnson can only present Kim as we saw him from a distance (to the extent that we saw him at all)--and what was realistic about that? On the world stage he came off as a murderous third world Bozo in elevator shoes and glasses he seemed to have swiped from Elton John. Johnson cannot show anything else because Johnson does not know any more about Kim than you or I do. He would have done better to take a page from V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River, in which Joseph Mobutu, thug-for-life of Congo/Zaire, though an important character and driver of the book's plot, never appears in person. Naipaul's approach would have gotten beyond the Dear Leader's apparent ridiculousness to the way most North Koreans actually experienced their abusive national father.

The transition from Jun Do's story in the novel's first have to his life under another name in the second continues the progression from credible realism into a more speculative sort of fiction. In fact, it requires the reader to swallow a plot twist so far-fetched that really only works as satire. (I apologize for the vagueness of that comment, but I am trying to guard against spoilers). The Do narrative's climax comes in an ostensibly tense prisoner exchange and attempted defection at Pyongyang's dumpy airport. The scene needed to evoke John Le Carre on a good day. Instead it was manipulative in a Steven Spielberg-ish sort of way (will the barking dog give away our hidden heroes?) and even farce-like at times. At one point, Kim Jong-il charges down a runway, "tummy bouncing inside his gray jumpsuit." Was I wrong to envisioned a Jackie Chan movie?

The bottom line is that the first part of The Orphan Master's son ("The Biography of Jun Do") is a harsh but mostly believable narrative presumably informed by North Korean defector testimony. But second part ("The Confessions of Commander Ga") sacrifices much of its realism for the sake of what it wants to do as a novel. This is not to say that it is not a ripping yarn in its own right. In fact, the transition from gritty realism to ripping yarn is the problem.

I have one more gripe. Unfortunately, talking about it requires giving away the ending to one of the narrative threads. I will strip the spoilers down to only one; if you don't wish to see it, you should skip to the next paragraph now. SPOILER WARNING. The idealistic torturer eventually comes to understand what he is and commits suicide. Certain aspects of this event seem contrived and unconvincing; I will pass over those to avoid further spoilers. But could somebody please explain to me exactly how the torturer manages to describe his own electrocution in a first person narrative? Did I miss something? I mean, I seldom say this but--WTF?

Despite these reservations, I recommend The Orphan Master's Son (and especially "The Biography of Jun Do") to those interested in the human experience in North Korea (but I do not recommend it to any without a stomach for graphic violence and cruelty). In the six years since the novel won the Pulitzer Prize, the penchant of the western media and political parties for narrative over inquiry become overt . For those curious about the dark places to which prescribed thinking may lead, The Orphan Master's Son is as good a place as any to start.