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Book Review: The Orphan Master's Son


A vision marred by myopia
SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | New Delhi, August 12, 2013 16:55
Tags : The Orphan Master's Son | Adam Johnson |

When Adam Johnson came out with The Orphan Master’s Son, people in general expected it to be a thought-provoking and entertaining piece of work. I say piece of work because calling it a novel would be a tad callous. But that was before Adam Johnson, willingly or unwillingly, started calling it variously a “definitive” account of and “a window into” Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK). And since he loves saying that, there is no choice but to scrutinise the book on that basis, and not merely as a novel.

The Orphan Master’s Son is the story of Jun Do, son of an orphanage keeper who refused to lend him his name. Jun Do struggles his way through the repressive regime, facing famine and other disasters, and grows up to work for it. He dons several caps, including those of a low-light tunnel warrior near DMZ, a kidnapper for the regime who plucks people off South Korean and Japanese coasts before they even realise what happened to them, and later an intelligence agent cum wireless operator.

However, when he, during a diplomatic negotiation tour to the US, fails to perform according to the whims of the officials who were at the regime’s top echelons, he is sent to a forced labour prison. From there not only does he manage to escape, killing the regime’s top commander who was a rival to the Dear Leader; he takes his identity and enters the life of DPRK’s most famous actress, who was Commander’s wife. This, right in the middle of Pyongyang where people who noticed this imposter either kept quiet, or as in the case of the Dear Leader, played along for some higher purpose. What happened latter forms the climax.

Needless to say, the plot is as thin as the wafers from the neighbourhood bakery. But since the book has variously been termed as a “masterpiece” and “literary alchemy”, and is being put in the league of Orwellian classics such as Nineteen Eighty Four, I may have missed a thing or two here. Let’s check it out.

On the level of literary fiction, there is no doubt that the novel works wonders. The sketch of the repressive regime and the day-to-day life in Pyongyang sounds chilling and hence impressive. Particularly the propaganda broadcasts through loudspeakers that is mandatory for everyone to listen to. The description of labour camps, torture divisions and the inside functioning of the regime are also good. The pace of the story is gripping in spite of holes in the narrative and there are times when one actually sees Orwellian reflections. But that’s that.
On the level of delivering a political message, the novel jumps the gun. While there is no denying that threat of liquidation and purge, even among the high officials, is real; the way the novel overdoes these depictions is a letdown. The same goes for the response of the common people. In Johnson’s make-believe Korea, everyone, from the lowly farmers to top commanders, is willing to defect at the first opportunity. Considering the regime has sustained, and has managed to give the US a bloody nose for over five decades now, the above phenomenon is merely a figment of the writer’s imagination. Actually, the very urge of the writer to appear sanctimonious muddies his vision and any semblance of neutrality, or balance, is quickly forsaken amidst the seduction to look for the outlandish. And this destroys some genuinely well written segments.

Take for example the scene where the Korean delegation to the US interacts with their counterparts. While both the sides are hoodwinking and trying to gauge each other, the DPRK side is shown as juveniles conjuring outlandish and fantastic schemes. Any journalist who has covered the negotiations between DPRK and the world powers will swear what kind of hard bargain the former strike and how more often than not, it is the Americans who appear to be playing into their hands and not vice versa. But in the urge to oversimplify complex issues and abandoning gray in the want for black and white, facts are the first casuality. The Orphan Master’s Son does that, and brilliantly.

But one must not forget that the target readership is quintessentially western and the kind of dumbing-down that happens there, especially so when one wants to read about nations that have uncomfortable relationships with the US, i.e Cuba, DPRK, Iran et cetera; the novel is bound to do well.

Interestingly, the novel also has an interaction with the writer at the end where Johnson maintains that events similar to those mentioned in the novel have taken place in the past and hence it has been made part of the story. Clearly, the author thinks that lone incidents can be turned into a day-to-day affair. It’s the equivalent of saying that since there was once a nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, it is perfectly right to say that nuclear meltdown is common in the US. The book is full of such jewels and more.


Author: Adam Johnson

Edition: Paperback

ISBN: 978-0-55-277825-1

Pages: 592

Price: Rs. 499

Publisher:  Black Swan/Random House

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017