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Book Review: The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson

Ford, G. (2012). The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, Asian Review of Books, 16 May.

Adam Johnson, who teaches creative writing at Stanford University, has published two previous books, a novel, Parasites Like Us, and a collection of short stories, Emporium, neither of which would have suggested that he would frame his new novel inside the alien setting of North Korea. The only other Western writer tackling this difficult fictional terrain is the pseudonymous “James Church” whose Pyongyang based detective Inspector O has so far managed three subsequent outings after first his initial foray into print with Murder in the Koryo. Both Johnson and Church draw on that collection of survivors stories from the camps of Kim Il Sung that have become increasingly familiar in the West over the last decade or so in the aftermath of President Bush’s promotion of the regime in Pyongyang to the pantheon of ‘Axis of Evil’ countries. Johnson then stirs in three further ingredients,  the imagined ‘modus operandii’ for the North’s abductions in the seventies and eighties of innocent Japanese off the beaches of Niigata and elsewhere, the horror and misery of the famine at the end of the nineties and the North’s commitment to and obsession with sporting prowess. Anyone who wants to see the last in action should tune in to watch North Korea’s women’s football team take on the United States at Old Trafford on July 28th as part of this year’s English Olympics.

All of which provides a framework and backdrop for a novel whose characters and interwoven storylines marry elements of the films Sommersby and Casablanca. The book’s hero is Pak Jun Do, the son of the manager of an children’s center who is recruited by North Korean Special Forces and becomes part of the team selecting, tracking and abducting Japanese citizens off the streets of Japan’s west coast cities. Subsequently Pak ends up sat on a trawler, the ‘Junma,’ tasked with providing exotic snacks for Pyongyang’s elite and Japan’s gourmets. As an initiation rite Pak—who has neither wife nor girlfriend—has the face of Sun Moon, – in all senses -North Korea’s Marilyn Monroe tattooed on his chest. Then, in a kind of U.S.S. Pueblo incident in reverse, they’re boarded by the U.S. Navy. Eventually the ‘Junma’ and its sailors are released but not before the ship’s iconic pictures of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have been looted as souvenirs. Despite the crew’s attempts to cover up the tragedy, Pak ends up saddled with the blame and is sent to a mining camp for political criminals.

After years of hard labor, he gets to meet in the depths of the workings the brutal and sadistic Minister of Prison Mines Ga Chol Chun, whose rise to power started with his winning the Golden Belt after defeating the Japanese Champion at the World Taekwondo Championship’s and claiming, as a reward, Sun Moon for his wife. Ga overconfident challenges Pak to a fight and Pak victorious walks free in the guise of his nemesis. Pak, like Sommersby (or for francophiles, Martin Guerre as it was in the original), returns ‘home’ to Sun Moon and her two children. Here, albeit with some trepidation, he is accepted for who he isn’t. It’s not for love or money, sex or property, but in a complicity where ‘better’ may be as good as it can get and where survival is a tightrope that must be walked every day. The plot moves on to a ‘comedy of manners’ as Pak is sent on a trip to the U.S. to curry favour and where eating with the dogs is as grave a breach of etiquette on the one side as eating the dog is on the other. Back home time is running out for surrogate husband and wife and the plots final denouement has shades of Bogart and Bergman assisted by the plight of a U.S. trans-Pacific oarswoman who preferred to paddle naked and a can of tinned peaches.

Johnson writes well and the story is well crafted. The North Korean backdrop has few inaccuracies. The beer he implies is “best” is misnamed—and these days Taedonggang trumps Ryongsong every time. Mobile phones are a fashion accessory more than a symbol of power and—more importantly—deep poverty engulfs not so much the farmers as the urban fastness of the Northeast where once-booming industrial hubs are only just beginning to recover from the human and economic devastation of the late 1990s. All in all, The Orphan Master’s Son is less illuminating about North Korea than it is about human nature. Johnson’s next book is worth looking forward to. It’s not clear where he plans to take us with it, but if it models itself on The Orphan Master’s Son, it will almost certainly tell us more about people rather than places.