I am drawn to books that immerse me in another country and culture. It is a way to “visit” or at least look through a window and see how others, think, feel and deal with the issues that arise in their countries and cultures. The Orphan Master’s Son by Johnson gives us an opportunity to peer into North Korea, a place that few of us will ever have a chance to visit, which made this all the more interesting to me.
The opening chapters in this absorbing and fascinating book tell how our main character, Pak Jun Do, is recruited to capture and kidnap Japanese citizens from Japan in order to force them to teach North Koreans the Japanese language and Japanese culture. The various methods that they used to kidnap Japanese citizens off the beach or along roads close to the shore are described in vivid detail and are probably based on actual events, since North Korea has done this in the past; a fact that few Japanese can forgive or forget.
Jun Do is not an orphan, a fate that seems to be universally scorned, but his father was put in charge of an orphanage, (thus the “Master” of the title) and Jun Do grew up with the other orphans. Because his father was ashamed of his position and wanted his son to to blend in with the other orphans Jun Do gave himself an orphan’s name -a name from a list of martyrs and heroes. He named himself after a man who even though he killed many Japanese, was still distrusted by his fellow revolutionaries because of his impure bloodline and so in order to prove his loyalty he made the ultimate sacrifice and hung himself.
From this rather ignominious beginning, with his name always identifying him as an orphan, and the weight of the sacrifice that his name carries, Jun Do tries to make his way in a world full of people who are distrustful and afraid. He becomes a fisherman, and eventually becomes a “hero of the Democratic People’s Republic,” but with each step he takes the rules change, or reality changes in order to accommodate the reality declared by the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. This causes some serious difficulties for Jun Do who in order to accommodate these shifting realities must be bitten by a shark to cover up a defection, assume the identity of a famous general, and on and on. The shifting realities are almost surreal and yet, Johnson is able to make us understand the desperateness with which these characters race to accommodate each new reality just to survive.
In one rather poignant and chilling scene an interrogator with the secret police describes how his father told him that at some point he might have to denounce his son:
“Now take my hand,” he told me. I put my small hand in his, and then his mouth became sharp with hate. He shouted, “I denounce this citizen as an imperialist puppet who should be remanded to stand trial for crimes against the state.” His face was red, venomous. “I have witnessed him spew capitalist diatribes in an effort to poison our minds with his traitorous filth.” The old men turned from their game to observe us. I was terrified, on the verge of crying. My father said, “See, my mouth said that, but my hand, my hand was holding yours. If your mother ever must say something like that to me, in order to protect to the two of you, know that inside, she and I are holding hands. And if someday you must say something like that to me, I will know it’s not really you. That’s inside. Inside is where the son and the father will always be holding hands.”
Since I grew up in Japan I have internalized the fear with which North Korea is held by most Japanese, yet Johnson (see interview) captures both the horrific and the comical nature of this illusory world that the Dear Leader has created in North Korea and our main character Jun Do is a person I can identify with and wanted to learn more about.
Brenda’s Rating: *****(Five Stars our of Five)
Recommend This Book To: Sharon, Ken, Keith, Lauren and Marian.
Book Study Worthy; Yes! (With Korean food of course!)
Read in ebook format.