Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Adam Johnson's The orphan master's son

It must be getting to winter because, as seems to happen in these our older years, our numbers at this month's meeting were down. There were just five of us ... And, interestingly, four of us liked the novel, Adam Johnson's The orphan master's son, despite its confronting, distasteful subject matter. For those of you who don't know, the novel is set in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and explores life under the repressive regime of Kim Jong-il.

It's a hard life

Early on, we discussed the fact that the book was written by an American, which, we thought, could be viewed a little suspiciously given the USA's negative relationship with North Korea. Several comparisons are made in the book between the two countries and not all flatter the USA - but you can't avoid seeing the lies behind North Korea's self-congratulation. Our sense was that this relationship didn't drive Johnson, and we didn't see it impinging upon his achievement.

Later in the discussion, one of us quoted a line from the book about life - "life is transient and subject to hardships" - which resulted in another's quick response, "not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" then! Whose propaganda is most effective do you think?

Is it believable?

The novel is pretty wild in places, and can be quite surreal at some times, absurd at others. One member found it so much so that she didn't like the book and couldn't finish it. Others, however, likened it to the writing of David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami. It's not surprising we thought that David Mitchell is quoted on the front cover of some editions.

We agreed that the exploits of our hero - Jun Do who later assumes the identity of Commander Ga - are scarcely believable but most of us understood that he is, in a way, Everyman taking us on a journey through life in North Korea.

There are many bizarre scenes in the novel, such as that involving the North Korean fishing boat meeting an American interceptor at sea. And there are scenes invoking torture and inhumane treatment that are scarcely believable. However, in an interview, Johnson said that pretty well all the events that occur in the novel were drawn from his research, which included writings by defectors, but that he had "toned down" the darkness! We were almost embarrassed to admit that at times the bizarreness was funny - but it was!

Characters and their relationships

We talked about some of the secondary characters. One, for example, is the first person narrator who appears in the second part of the novel. We wondered why his story is first person and thought it might be that he is supposed to be our guide through this section, but we didn't resolve this question fully. We also talked about his relationship with his parents, and how their fear and determination to believe whatever they were told via the propaganda machine (the loudspeaker broadcasts) seriously affected their relationship with their son.

We also discussed Sun Moon, Commander Ga's wife who becomes imposter Commander Ga aka Jun Do's wife in the second part of the novel. She is an actress, and it's clear that there's no distinction between her work and personal life - she is, she says, "pure actress" - until near the end when she finally decides to be "intimate" with Ga/Do, but which she means sharing her inner self, who she is.

Another character we briefly discussed is Mongman, the photographer inmate in Prison 33 who takes Jun Do under her wing. We didn't quite understand her motivation. Perhaps just decent humanity?

We discussed the idealised view of and reverence for pain. Johnson uses white flower imagery to typify or represent pain. Using such a beautiful (pure?) image seems to suggest that withstanding pain, learning to face and manage it is a good thing, and almost a duty of North Korean citizens.

What can you trust?

A main theme of the novel is the precariousness of existence under a totalitarian regime. We were interested in the discrepancies between the official or propaganda story of imposter Commander Ga and Sun Moon, but we also noted how people were brainwashed to believe what they were told. We discussed how the structure, with its different versions of the story, mirrors the uncertainty of living under such a regime. It pays, we realised, to be cautious if you want to survive unscathed in such a society.

One member who has visited South Korea fairly recently spoke of her accompanied visit to the DMZ, and how she saw large groups of young boys riding their bicycles round and round with placards promoting reunification. She commented too that South Koreans are fed propaganda about their northern cousins.

Overall, we found it a challenging but worthwhile novel that engaged us well and truly for our allotted discussion time. It was, really, only the promise of cake that drew us away in the end!


  1. I too was glad I read the book, even though it was at times quite a harrowing read, reminding me of Dystopia novels, especially Orwell's 1984, with the grim qualification that he was writing about an actual state.
    I was interested in the commentary of whether Johnson as a US citizen has any bias, or is appropriate to write such a book. I did feel that he had something of a mission to highlight the North Koreans harsh regime. and his finale where Sun Moon escapes under Kim Jong Il 's nose to 'freedom' in the US was somewhat overblown, as our hero goes to his death, happy that Sun Moon will enjoy freedom and all the US offers. It was a little black and white for me...
    Other reviews pointed to the fact that it was meeting the US ship that changed Jun Do from a model citizen to a subversive force in society. Whose propaganda do we buy?.
    I was intrigued by the American rowers who rowed 24 hours, and the fantasy of a topless rower rowing into the night....
    I agree the tone ranges from surreal to bizarre, and at the end almost cinematic. I thought the story over the loudspeaker to be great contrast with events happening.
    The parents relationship was tragic, but I don't blame them in some ways as their son worked for the torture section of govt!
    Trust was a commodity hard to find, and some people like the sea captain had a certain pragmatism.
    The nature of heroism becomes sharply focussed in such a society. It demanded Heroes to demonstrate what a powerful successful nation it was, but those in the limelight lived at high risk, as a fall from favour was usually very dramatic.
    Not an easy book to read, but one with lots in it, and in the second half I was very keen to know what happens to sun moon and the kids... It really got me in.

  2. Great to have your comments Kate. As I think I wrote in my own review, I was initially quite discomforted about its being written by an American, preferring such critiques to come from inside (or, from exiles) but decided that there weren't many of those around and that at least this was providing a perspective on the regime (and one that was well-researched). The ending as you say was very American, though I didn't find it overly black and white, perhaps because I'm cynical enough to know that there was no guarantee of happily every after!

    However, like you I did get into the book and found it a real page turner once I did. I loved the loudspeaker bulletins which are apparently based on fact.

    Like all regimes run by despots, life is presented as so precarious - just like it was, say, in Tudor England. So easy to fall out of favour at the whim of the leader. Terribly way to live.


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