The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

 

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.

The Most Famous Book in the Philippines (and why it’s awesome)

Not many countries have a national hero who wrote good fiction.  

The Philippines got lucky – they have Jose Rizal. Rizal was only 26 years old when he wrote his magnum opus and sowed the seeds of a revolution. 130 years later, 3rd years in Filipino high schools are still reading it.

That book is none other than Noli Mi Tangere.

Imagine if George Washington or MLK wrote a novel describing the current situation in America and the need for justice with the imagination and irony of Charles Dickens.   Or if Gandhi did the same thing in India in the early 20th century. It would be a pretty big deal, right?

I read Noli expecting it would be an “educational” experience. It was that, but it was also entertaining, funny, tragic, operatic, and so many other things I was not expecting.

If there is one “definitive” novel you want to read in, on or about the Philippines, this is it.

Noli begins with a dinner party in the house of Captain Tiago, a wealthy Filipino who enjoys hosting and impressing others:

…at the time Captain Tiago was considered one of the most hospitable of men, and it was well known that his house, like his country, shut its doors against nothing except commerce and all new or bold ideas.

 The most hostile enemies to these “new ideas” are the friars, the de facto rulers of the towns – and the most hostile and tyrannical of these friars is Padre Damaso.   Padre Damaso is one of Captain Tiago’s guests and enjoys being a VIP and having the last word on everything. The tides turn when the captain introduces a special new guest: his future son-in-law, Chrisostomo Ibarra.

Ibarra is a kind and idealistic young man who has been studying in Europe and dreams of opening a schoolhouse. He also looks forward to marrying his lovely fiancée, Maria Clara and settling down to a happily ever after. The fates, of course, have other ideas.

Ibarra learns that there is something sinister behind his father’s death, and that Padre Damaso is a part of it. Padre Damaso happens to also be Maria Clara’s godfather and does not approve of Ibarra’s progressive views. The two are enemies from day one.

Ibarra tries to be a peacemaker and a compromiser, but the more he sees of the Filipinos’ inequality and the oppression under the dominion of the friars, the more conflicted he becomes. A mysterious new friend, Elias, tells Ibarra that bloodshed and revolution is the only realistic answer. Ibarra does everything he can to hold out and hope for a more peaceful path, but he finds himself at a center of controversy and persecution all the same.

If Ibarra is a tragic hero following the old Greek model, his crucial failing would be optimism. “Couldn’t a worthy enterprise make its way over everything, since truth doesn’t need to borrow garments from error?” he asks Tasio, the local sage, at one point.

To which Tasio replies, “Nobody loves the naked truth!”

Ouch. Reality bites.

Is Rizal saying that preemptive bloodshed and violence is the only solution? That would be ironic, because Rizal himself wrote this political novel as an alternative to bloodshed. What’s even more chilling is the fact that in the character of Ibarra Rizal prophesied his own fate. Just a few years after Noli was released, Rizal was accused of plotting and sedition and brought before the court.

The most triumphant aspect of Noli Mi Tangere is not the political dialogue but the variety of memorable characters and the vivid scenes that reveal 19th century Philippine life under the tyranny of the friars.

We visit a belfry where we see two altar boys accused by the sacristan of a crime they didn’t commit, a cock fight where two young brothers gamble their money to escape their poverty, and a bombastic sermon in church by the blustering Padre Damaso that defies his followers to stay awake. We meet victims like the tormented madwoman Sisa , dreamers like Tasio the Sage who writes in a secret code for future generations, and villains like Padre Salvi who lusts after women in spite of his sickly and pompous disposition.

Charles Dickens himself would be hard pressed to outdo characters like the terrible Doña Consolación with her whip and the comical Doña Victorina with her awful fashion statements – and their hapless husbands who get dragged into their hateful rivalry.

If Rizal was exaggerating the virtues, vices and contrasts of his characters, it could not have been by much, because his novel hit a note and sent the country reeling. Noli Mi Tangere means “Touch Me Not,” in Latin, and Rizal said that the contents of his novel were so sensitive and so controversial that no one up until that point in time was willing to “touch” them. The novel was the match that lit the powder keg and inspired the Filipino people to fight for their freedom. Nine years later, Rizal paid for the aftermath with his life in front of a firing squad.

Now that the Philippines is a free and much more prosperous country today, however – and thanks in part to Jose Rizal – there is no reason you shouldn’t touch Noli Mi Tangere.   It’s not every day you find a novel about justice, freedom, revenge, romance and secret identity that also shaped the history of a nation.