It’s not easy to find novels about North Korea.
A Creative Writing professor from Stanford took a stab at it. His name – Adam Johnson – is almost as American as apple pie a la mode but he did a pretty good job with The Orphan Master’s Son.
Johnson certainly was going for “epic” and his story sweeps a span of time and space beginning in the humble countryside that no one in North Korea ever sees and ending in the fantastical capital of Pyongyang. There is love, there is hope, there’s blood and guts and glory, tragedy and horror. There is also comedy – extremely dark comedy, of course.
Pak Jun Do is not an orphan, but he might as well be. He works at an orphanage called Long Tomorrows under the management of a cruel and neglectful father. Even his name Jun Do (“John Doe,” get it?) is a generic name taken from a roster of famous orphans. The original Pak Jun Do was famed for loyalty. His namesake, the hero of our story, lives up to it by being one of the most loyal and humble citizens of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Jun Do rises through the ranks pretty quickly. From professional kidnapper to a spy intercepting radio transmissions aboard a fishing boat he seems to make the most out of life and is uncorrupted by wealth or rewards. “You’re a guy who doesn’t need much,” one friend remarks, “but when it comes to other people, the sky’s the limit.”
Jun Do’s bold and brave exploits land him a diplomatic mission to Texas to visit a senator and reclaim from the Americans something valued they took from the Dear Leader himself. The mission takes some unexpected turns, and by the end of it, Jun Do disappears. When he re-emerges, he is no longer Jun Do. He is Commander Ga.
This is when the novel gets crazy. In a mostly good way. The first part of the novel (“The Biography of Jun Do”) is a straightforward narrative, but the second part (“The Confessions of Commander Ga”) is a series of events and crescendos building on one another with more and more significant recurring themes about identity, truth, and purpose – you know, ultimate issues kind of stuff. Jun Do, now Commander Ga, has allegedly killed and assumed the identity of one of North Korea’s most formidable men. He takes his place in the city of Pyongyang and has a chance to be close to the woman he loves: Commander Ga’s widow, the famous actress Sun Moon. He also has to save Sun Moon before she’s snatched away by the greedy and lustful Dear Leader himself.
(Yes, Kim Jong Il is an actual character in this book. And he even has a few appropriately outrageous lines, such as the following: “This is the gui-tar. It’s used to perform American rural music…It’s also the instrument of choice for playing ‘the blues,’ which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision making.”)
The story of Commander Ga in Part 2 is interwoven with two other points of view. The first, rather brilliantly, is a loudspeaker blasting its own propagandized version of Commander Ga’s story, beginning each day like an old time radio show: “Citizens, gather round…!” It’s an almost theatrical motif you could imagine in a musical production. The second point of view follows a nameless interrogator who is holding important characters in prison. His kind and truth-seeking character is a foil to the unspeakably cruel people he works with – particularly a woman named Q-Kee who is the embodiment of the ruthless North Korean version of the Gestapo.
It can get confusing if you don’t read carefully. The interrogator’s story happens in a different sequence of time from the story of Commander Ga and the propagandized version, of course, may or may not have happened at all. There are a lot of shadowy characters who pop up and may or may not come back later. Commander Ga himself does not seem to be sure who he really is or what his destiny is, for that matter. But the loose ends are more or less tied up at the end, and whatever isn’t is left tantalizingly to the imagination. If some of the major philosophical themes weren’t so subtle this could be a stunning opera. Or a Hollywood thriller. But the subtle and shadowy stuff makes it good.
Perhaps one of the most brilliantly strange things that Johnson manages to do is have a running reference in the story to Casablanca – Commander Ga and the actress Sun Moon are compared to Rick and Elsa falling in love in a dangerous and unstable situation. Jun Do alias Commander Ga certainly is the melancholic lone wolf type who is bound in the end to do the right thing. His love for Sun Moon is a bit larger than life and never really explained – but perhaps it’s because she reminds him of his beautiful mother who was a singer kidnapped to Pyongyang. The haunting loss of his mother is perhaps the only real reason why he is mad enough to stay in North Korea when all his comrades are trying to escape:
How to tell [him] that the only way to shake your ghosts was to find them, and that the only place Jun Do could do that was right here. How to explain the recurring dream that he’s listening to his radio, that he’s getting the remnants of important messages, from his mother, from other boys in the orphanage…His mother wants to get urgent messages to him where she is, she wants to tell him why, she keeps repeating her name over and over, though he can’t quite make it out. How to explain that in Seoul, he knows, the messages would stop.
Of course when Jun Do – Commander Ga – meets Sun Moon he has a new reason to stay in North Korea. But there are still ghosts everywhere in this story. Ghosts of characters who die and vanish. Ghosts of characters you never meet, like Jun Do’s mother. Even living characters can seem ghostly at times. As the narrator says at one point, “It was easy to make somebody disappear in North Korea. But making them reappear – who has that kind of magic?”
As bizarre and surreal as the story gets at times, I think Johnson’s “ghostly” vibe running through the Orphan Master’s Son is a fitting one. As hard as one tries to get the facts on North Korea, to the outside world it remains one of the ghostliest of places. We can only imagine it’s ghostly on the inside too.