In the Penal Country: Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master's Son

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this beast. It’s an interesting novel with one of the more fascinating characters since Mike Schwartz. But how much of this novel’s interest is from it’s wrapping? It’s set in a strange, unfamiliar place, but how accurate is this this novel’s setting? Or, more importantly, how much does author Adam Johnson want us to think how accurate it is?

The Orphan Master’s Son is a story about a nameless man, living in a country where the rules are all inverted and everything is part of some Byzantine puzzle. Orphans are raised by the state for the jobs nobody else wants and take the names of state martyrs. Workers are told about the glorious life of retirees, who are shipped off to a sea-side retirement village that nobody’s ever seen. It’s the DPRK, where the story is more important than the truth and whatever the state tells you is true becomes so.

We follow the nameless man through various incarnations of his life: living with orphans, working in the tunnels under the DMZ, getting recruited into a a squad of kidnappers, then travelling with a group of fisherman. We see everything from the DPRK from his side: he’s not so much a pawn as someone who’s grown up under strange rules and can’t see things any other way. But he’s a good and loyal worker, so soon, he’s sucked into the elite cadre at the top of North Korea and spends time with Kim Jong Il. Before long, he’s on an important international mission.

On that level, its sounds like a spy novel, but it never reads like that. Instead, it’s all very Kafka-like: nobody ever has names and the narration is detached and impersonal. I kept thinking about The Trial and especially In the Penal Colony while reading this, which was maybe the point. Indeed, this is less a novel about politics than one about identity and truth. It’s split into two parts and almost doesn’t begin properly until the second; the first half is a necessary prologue, but the plot doesn’t kick into gear until maybe halfway through.

But this novel sometimes spells out what Kafka infers. It’s almost trying too hard to show how distorted this country can be: Johnson sometimes all but yells “Things are backwards here!” and hammers at a few things (like how they eat dogs, which seems awfully close to indulging in stereotypes sometimes). At times like these, one can really see his influences: Kafka, the Laura Ling and Euna Lee story, Casablanca.

To be fair, Johnson’s created a fully-formed North Korea, a spooky place where the subways don’t work, animals live on top of apartment buildings and the secret police are always lurking. I’m not sure how accurate it is – and especially the attitudes of the army brass – but it’s a living, breathing place. Like all despotic states, nobody has their own identity; I didn’t realize it until I finished, but nobody here goes by their real name. Or, in most cases, a name at all. Everyone just goes by what the state tells them they are.

It took a while – until the second half, really – for me to really get into this book, but once it got going, I didn’t put it down, banging out the last two thirds in one afternoon. And it’s a good read, but it’s so impersonal I found myself detached from it all. When something happens, there’s no connection, even when the characters finally act like real people. It’s too bad: the DPRK setting is likely the big draw to this book, but it honestly feels like smoke and mirrors covering and distorting a enjoyable, if routine, love story.

Rating: 7/10. If you’re interested in the DPRK, it’s an interesting read and it’s not an entirely bad love story, but in both cases there’s books I’d recommend over this: Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, Kang Chol-hwan’s The Aquariums of Pyongyang or Kapuscinski’s The Emperor (previously reviewed here).


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