Sometimes, the best laid schemes do not so much gang agley as get completely blown out of the water. The theory is that I have at least a week between each of my three monthly reading groups – first Monday, second Wednesday, third Wednesday. This month, however, that nice neat arrangement let me down. As happens every so often, the first Monday and the second Wednesday were in the same week, while the third Wednesday group, who are mostly teachers, wanted to move the meeting forward seven days because the regular date fell in the Easter holidays when some of them would be away. As a consequence I was left with three groups meeting within three days of each other and a colossal logistical headache.
Fortunately, this was partly alleviated when the person taking the Wednesday morning group had to step down and I immediately volunteered to take over as long as I could do the same book as I was reading with the Monday group. Given that we at home were also having a domestic crisis, for once two rather than three books to read seemed like a minor gift from the gods. My only concern was that the book I had chosen for the first group wasn’t one that I would have selected for the second. The Monday group reads award winners and with the 2014 Pulitzer due any day I had picked last year’s winner, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. The Wednesday group are not as practiced readers as their Monday counterparts and I was worried that the structure of the story would challenge some of them too far beyond their comfort zone. Remind me never to pre-judge my reading groups in future.
Johnson’s novel is set in North Korea and starts out to tell the story of Pak Jun Do, the orphan master’s son of the title. Although being brought up as an orphan, with all the terrible implications that has in the DRNK, Jun Do is convinced that he is actually the son of the master of the orphanage, if only because of the fact that his ‘father’ treats him so much worse than any of the other boys. As the novel progresses it becomes apparent that what Jun Do is doing here is breaking a fundamental tenet of North Korean philosophy, he is having the audacity to write his own story. In the DRNK you do not decide for yourself who are are going to be, you follow the dictates of the state. As Dr Song says
Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.
Which is why, half way through, the book suddenly seems to switch to telling us about the high ranking official, Commander Ga. For reasons that become apparent as Ga’s history is revealed, the state has now decided that that is who the individual we had previously come to know as Jun Do really is and woe betide anyone who might suggest otherwise.
Never use your imagination. The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.
And that real darkness threatens anyone who breaks away from the official line of the state.
The atrocities that we witness being exercised on many of those who are declared the enemy of the state, including the individual who might be Jun Do, but is currently Commander Ga, are difficult enough to read about without Johnson’s assurance in interviews that he left out ninety precent of the practices current in the DRNK, but throughout Jun Do/Ga continues to defy the world around him and tell his own story. Even in the final moments of the book, when a sympathetic interrogator tries to offer him what he believes to be a relatively humane way out of his dilemma, Jun Do/Ga reaches out and quite literally takes his life into his own hands.
It was the second half of the novel that I thought might throw some members of the groups because it is structured in such a way as to allow the reader to witness the manipulation of the telling of the story by the state. Thus part of it is narrated by Ga himself, part by the interrogator and part by the propaganda broadcasts that are fed into every home and workplace via the state’s loudspeakers. The results take a bit of following, not the least because we in the West are likely to find the propaganda version funny, only then to have to reassess our reaction as we realise that whatever they may think, those who are being directly exposed to this fantasy had better not react in the same way.
Given the terrible acts that some of the characters are forced to carry out, it is surprising how many of them Johnson draws sympathetically. The interrogator is one such. Through his eyes we begin to realise just what a lonely life the people of North Korea live. It isn’t safe to trust anyone and neither is it wise to show any affection for any other. Nameless throughout and thus, like Jun Do, stripped of any meaningful identity, he recalls a conversation with his father.
Even if we walked this path side by side, he said, we must act alone on the outside, while on the inside, we would be holding hands.
I think more than anything that took my heart and twisted it in two.
I thought this was a remarkable book, especially in respect of the way that Johnson manipulated the structure in order to mirror its major themes. I was surprised then, when the Monday group took exception to it. I wondered afterwards if it was because in other lives so many of them had been A level teachers and were used to books that followed reasonably expected patterns. The Wednesday group, on the other hand, whose members I had thought might struggle, were for the most part moved deeply by it and wanted to go on talking about it so long that we very nearly got thrown out of the room in which we meet. It just goes to show how individual we all are when it comes to our reaction to a story and how difficult most of us would find it to operate under a regime such as that which exists in the DRNK.