Try to inhabit the no-man’s-land of North Korea in Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son without feeling an eerie gray mood take you over. Use it as an aid to perspective, when you consider the modern ills in your own home country. For Mr. Johnson has distilled the pain and degradation inflicted on North Koreans into his protagonist, an orphan who is not an orphan.
And any consideration of this Pulitzer Prize-winning book must start and end with the main character – a man who cannot even claim his own name. Mr. Johnson shows that orphans must take their names from one of the “heroes of the revolution.” As a young boy our protagonist receives the name of a state hero who committed suicide rather than let any wartime suspicion fall on him. Even though he really does have a father, he is treated as an orphan – despised and mistreated, and given all the worst, most dangerous jobs. He thus captures the whole of North Korean society.
The events of this novel illuminate the perverse and paranoid customs, particularly the caprices of the so-called criminal justice system, of this isolated country. The first two thirds feel episodic, until fate draws our hero into the life of a celebrity actress, a favorite of the dictator’s, and the story gains some clarity and momentum. The man comes to love her, and works assiduously for her safety and security. Doing that comes at tremendous cost, as the hero knows full well. Anyone wanting to escape North Korea must leave no family orfriends or associates or acquaintances behind for the state to punish, and this complicates things for everyone.
The author further complicates things by telling the last part of his story in a fluid chronology – we bounce back and forth between two periods, one after the hero is arrested the final time and one before. This strategy creates a tension in the reader – it makes her anxious to learn the fates of the main characters, and Mr. Johnson conditions us not to expect the best.
While this book has much to recommend it, it was a tough slog for me, because of the subject matter and setting. It’s a deserving Pulitzer winner, for two features: Mr. Johnson’s daring and unorthodox handling of his plot, and for his creation of a splendid, memorable hero, in whom he instills a suffering country’s best characteristics and best hopes.