The Orphan Master’s Son ~ Adam Johnson

the-orphan-masters-son-300x458Sometimes, 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.

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23 thoughts on “The Orphan Master’s Son ~ Adam Johnson

  1. This was a brave choice for any reading group, Alex, almost as much for its length as for its subject matter. I had mixed feelings about it – a thorougly accomplished, heart-wrenching piece of fiction but I had read Barbara Demmick’s Nothing to Envy a few years ago and was unable to read the Johnson without her account of life in North Korea in my head. A strange and horrifying place.

    1. I haven’t come across Demmick’s book, but will definitely look it out. For me it was the way in which form followed the major themes that was so interesting. I am always going to be captivated by anyone who manages to pull that off.

  2. I was totally enthralled by The Orphan Master’s Son — I can’t remember another novel I’ve read in the last few years that had me so engrossed, both intellectually and emotionally. What an interesting surprise about the two groups. Do you think also that there is a self-reinforcing effect once people start talking about a book?

    1. I think you may have hit the heart of the issue there, Rohan, especially where the first group, who I had expected to be able to cope better with it, were concerned. The first person who spoke had taken against it and she is a rather dominant member of the group. It wasn’t that the others didn’t voice their own opinions but where they had mixed feelings inevitably they chimed in with their disappointment first. I’m with you though. I was completely involved with the book from start to finish.

  3. Wow, this sounds like a really powerful story. And how interesting the reactions of the two groups. especially that they were so different than you expected. Your book group schedule in general is insane to me so I am glad you at least got to use the same book for two of the groups.

    1. I sometimes think insane is the best word for me anyway, Stefanie, although if I had to opt for one or the other I would go for insane over totally sane any day of the week, so maybe I invite these crazy situations. Given the way in which you’re struggling with the Prose at the moment I’m not sure how you would manage with the very different voices that crop up here, but I would be very interested to read what your reactions were. Apart from anything else I would like to get an American point of view on the book.

  4. Three reading groups — well done you! I’m sure I’d rebel against it if I had three that all me monthly; I’d have good intentions but would end up wanting to read something of my own rather than whatever book club book was going to be. It sounds like this one generated lots of good discussion though! What did the Monday group object to about the book? Did they come out and say they didn’t like the unexpected structure of the book, or what?

    1. I was talking about this yesterday with the one person in the group who had really enjoyed it and she made an interesting point – namely that the first person who spoke about it was one of the established group leaders and she was uncharacteristically forceful in her dislike of the book. After that it was hard for some of the less dominant members to counter her. It’s fascinating how one person can swing a whole group like that.

    1. This is a book I must read…The Nothing To Envy book is unforgettable reportage. I shy away from reading groups but your experience with your two groups is really fascinating.

      1. When I finished teaching, Ian, the one thing I missed most was being paid to sit around and talk about books all day with other people who really cared about what they were reading. And, contrary to a lot of publicity, most of my students really did care about what they read and wanted to talk about it. This is why I sought out reading groups, as a substitute for those experiences. It has made me very choosy about the type of group I’ve joined, however. None of the three I go to are the sort that discusses the book for ten minutes and then talks about other things. When we get going we can still be there pulling a book to pieces (and hopefully putting it back together again) two or more hours later. And yes, do read the book, just as I shall now look out Nothing To Envy.

    1. BookerTalk, that’s a fascinating interview. (I don’t approve of the bit at the end, about how it’s the one country on earth where the leader could come back to life.) It sounds like this one has to go on my list.

      1. Jeanne, I suspect you would have hated the list of questions for discussion that I found which finished by asking what the US, given its moral responsibility to police the world, could do to alter the situation. I have to say they didn’t quite phrase it that way but that was the gist of it.

        1. !!!!!! Since I suspect myself of being snotty for hating most of the questions for discussion at the back of books advertised especially for book clubs, I suspect you’re right. There’s something about the way they have to be phrased in order to appeal to a very wide audience that sets my teeth on edge.
          Eventually I’ll give you another American point of view on this book.

    2. That was one of my main sources of information, Karen. The Paris Review is always my first port of call when I’m preparing a book for discussion. The interviews they carry out are always so perceptive.

      1. I’ve not read a huge number of them but the ones I have were so well written and so insightful that I’m going to make it one of the places I visit regularly

  5. Not a book I would want to read myself, but I am delighted to have your sensitive review in its place, which I enjoyed a great deal more than the original text. What an interesting difference of reaction – but it is always the opposite of what you expect, I find. There ought to be a law of physics about that!

    1. There probably is, Litlove, with lots of words like ‘inverse’ in it. But I am not clever enough to know what it might be. I shall ask Jolyon Bear, who always knows about these things.

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