Life Above the DMZ is a Perverse Opera: ‘The Orphan Master’s Son’

[26 February 2012]

By Chris Barsanti

Christopher Hitchens once referred to North Korea as a “slave state”, and there is little that has been revealed since about the curiously stunted upper half of that peninsula which would belie this definition. The night-and-day surveillance, the famines, the mind games and brainwashing, the at-gunpoint groupthink; it all conjures an image of a people who are bound to their overlords in every sense of the word. Freedom would seem a laughable concept. Nevertheless, it’s a description that doesn’t quite fit. When everyone is a slave, who is the master?

All of the Korean characters in Adam Johnson’s hyperbolic and icily rapturous novel are indeed slaves to the world-encompassing propaganda from the leadership’s impregnable underground bunkers. It’s like atmosphere, they don’t seem able to live without it. More terrifyingly, it’s not even clear that they would necessarily want to. Johnson’s entrypoint to this stillborn realm — whose imagery of fixed-grin industriousness seems more like a parody of early 20th century Russian Constructivism than anything else – is Pak Jun Do, whose father ran an orphanage where the inhabitants would give their ration cards to have it as good as Oliver Twist. Jun Do’s recollections of his youth are glazed with regret over the loss of his mother (a singer kidnapped away to Pyongyang like so many other beautiful women prized by some leader) but are quickly numbed by memories of the famine:

When the shock-work whistles stopped blowing, Jun Do knew it was bad. One day the fishing fleet went out and didn’t come back. With winter came blackfinger and the old people went to sleep. Those were just the first months, long before the bark-eaters. The loudspeakers called the famine an Arduous March, but that voiced was piped in from Pyongyang. Jun Do had never heard anyone in Chongjin call it that. What was happening to them didn’t need a name — it was everything, every fingernail you chewed and swallowed, every lift of an eyelid, every trip to the latrine where you tried to shit out wads of balled sawdust. When all hope was gone, the Orphan Master burned the bunks…

At 14, Jun Do is a soldier, “trained in the art of zero-light combat”. He practices judo in the dark in tunnels that the North Korean army has dug under the DMZ and uses to infiltrate the South on their many incursions. He is then attached to one of the last kidnapping units, sent on rickety boats across the sea to Japan. There, with no real training and a cavalcade of amateurishly ad-hoc military planning (one of many hints of Joseph Heller that Johnson drops throughout), Jun Do snatches a random woman off a beach and spirits away an opera singer because again, some high-ranking Pyongyang official liked her voice.

The first sections of The Orphan Master’s Son rush by, written with a terrible fluency in the grinding, everyday horror of totalitarian life. Johnson’s trick here, in addition to his wicked sense of poetic abandon, is the casual sense of dialogue. Too many authors trying to inhabit the mind of a foreigner skew their language to the stilted or the exotic; but Johnson’s characters speak with little sense of their being an “other”. At one point while on a kidnap mission in Japan, Jun Do notes that “In this whole stupid country, the only thing that made sense to me were the Korean ladies on their knees cleaning the feet of the Japanese.” Later in the exchange, his partner downs his whiskey and grumbles “I’m just a person. I’m just a nobody who wants out,” like any other soldier the world over disgusted with his commanders and questioning the mission.

It’s the lack of wholesale questioning of North Korea’s oddity which gives Johnson’s narrative such a dark tint of truth. A more conventional writer would have included some moment of great eye-opening in one of the occasions when Jun Do leaves his motherland — in one of the book’s more unsuccessfully picaresque episodes, he accompanies a diplomatic mission to Texas — wherein he realized what a great lie he had been living. That in other countries, when soldiers like him became ill, they weren’t simply hooked up to IVs and drained of blood. That there was a reality beyond his borders, that the fantastical tales about the Dear Leader’s magical powers were likely not true.

But freedom is a complicated thing that means more than simply fleeing across a border. Years of conditioning take their toll, spiritually and physically. Orwell understood that.
Most of the North Koreans in Johnson’s novel can’t escape when they have the chance because the regime, acting like a gargantuan criminal racket, would exact a horrendous punishment on everyone they knew. For those not tied down by friends or family, like Jun Do, there’s an even deeper kind of imprisonment they undergo. At one point, he tries to answer an American who asks him whether he knows what “free feels like”:

How to explain his country to her, he wondered. How to explain that leaving its confines to sail upon the Sea of Japan — that was being free. Or that as a boy, sneaking from the smelter floor for an hour to run with boys in the slag heaps, even though there were guards everywhere, because there were guards everywhere — that was the purest freedom….

“When you’re in my country,” he said, “everything makes simple, clear sense. It’s the most straightforward place on earth.”

That simple, clear sense, of course, is that starvation is always around the corner, that somebody (many somebodys) is always listening, that anyone can be disappeared into forced-labor camps that were little more than extermination mills, that the torture dungeons are more about games played between rival gangs of interrogators than extracting actual information, that the Dear Leader’s will (trumpeted throughout by the bullyingly cheerful loudspeaker propaganda announcements that Johnson studs the novel with) is all that matters.

In illustrating the varied levels of North Korean society, and the differing ways in which the rich and poor and in-between are trapped by the system, Johnson resorts to having Jun Do float almost affectlessly through them with little (initially) sense of judgment, like a more lethal version of Chauncey Gardiner. The pell-mell satire of the novel’s first part works almost perfectly in this regard, with Jun Do’s clear-eyed survivor’s perceptiveness vividly relaying the horror and comedy of this cheap and deadly carnival of a country. An abrupt shift about one-third of the way in short-cuts into a different narrative, ostensibly still about Jun Do but written in a more distant and self-conscious voice.

Although the latter two-thirds of The Orphan Master’s Son brings in a wider range of characters (an actress, an interrogator, a fiendish Pyongyang officer, the Dear Leader himself), the dramatic break hobbles the rest of the novel, as do Johnson’s more florid and clownish passages, which become more pronounced as the book lurches toward a climax that’s self-consciously farcical and absurd. His point could be that absurdity is the stuff of everyday North Korean life. But with all the operatic tics Johnson — a writer of magnetic potency who doesn’t seem capable of penning a dull page — finally throws into the mix, it’s a continual overstatement that only diminishes the observations made earlier with such deadly precision.

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