The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master’s Son (2012) by Adam Johnson is the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2013.  I always had an idea that Pulitzer award-winning novels were about American life and culture, yet, a glance at the synopsis of The Orphan Master’s Son will tell you right away that it has nothing to do with American life.  I was quite surprised to find out that it is, in fact, about life in North Korea, through the eyes of Pak Jun Do, the novel’s protagonist.

The novel is divided into two parts – the first part, entitled The Biography of Pak Jun Do, told from the 3rd person perspective, is devoted to the life and times of Pak Jun Do, the son of the Orphan Master (a government post in charge of running one of the country’s many orphanages).

 The second half of the novel, entitled the Confessions of Commander Ga is told from the 1st person perspective of an unknown narrator, and from a 3rd person perspective when it concerns Commander Ga.

 Pak Jun Do, raised in an orphanage by a man he believed to be his father, didn’t know anything about his mother except that she was an opera singer who was brought to the capital, Pyongyang.  After life in the orphanage, Pak Jun Do trains in the tunnels that run under the mountains of North Korea, learning to fight in the darkness and crossing the DMZ to spy on South Korea.  He is later thrust into a career of kidnapping random citizens in Japan and  as a reward for doing well in their missions, he is given the privilege to learn English through listening and transcription classes, which then gets him a job on a fishing vessel, listening and transcribing English messages on different radio frequencies.  Through fabricated events, Pak Jun Do is later named a National Hero and gets sent to Texas as a translator to a North Korean delegate.

Commander Ga is a seasoned fighter, National Hero, Tae Kwon Do Golden Belt champion, Minister of Prison Mines, who single-handedly got rid of all homosexuals in North Korea, and husband of the country’s greatest actress, Sun Moon. Commander Ga is friend and later, enemy of the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il. 

Kim Jong Il, the Dear Leader himself, is a major character in this novel, both in actuality and in spirit. I’m sure not many novels have tried to portray him or have even attempted to describe his personality, but in The Orphan Master’s Son, he is portrayed as a man who is loving and generous, but also feels lonely, and insecure.

The second half, like the first half of the book is interspersed with propaganda chapters – announcements broadcast on speakers in every home, factory, government building, and public place, on the state of life in the greatest country in the world, North Korea; on the happiness of its citizens compared to the starving, deprived and neglected citizens of Japan, South Korea or the United States, and of course about the benevolent and understanding Great Leader, Kim Jung Il.

The connection between the two characters, Pak Jun Do and Commander Ga are not clear at first, but their relationship will be explained slowly in the 2nd half of the book.

It’s very difficult to get a sense of the enormity of the scope of this novel.  It describes the life and conditions of citizens in North Korea – conditions, which, depending on whose perspective you look at it from can either be oppressive or utopic. It describes the thoughts and feelings of the citizens of North Korea toward their country and Leader – their real feelings versus what they know they should be feeling, as dictated by the State.

It’s hard to describe a book full of torture, indescribable horrors and grief as funny, yet the novel at times comes across as comedic – darkly comedic.  The national propaganda broadcasts designed to boost citizen morale and kindle patriotic feelings toward the Dear Leader are strangely funny in a very sad sort of way.  Descriptions by North Koreans of the lives of citizens in democratic countries such as Japan or the United States, or South Korea make them seem petty, shallow, frivolous and wasteful (a description by Pak Jun Do of an American cook-out and barbecue comes across as barbaric and unrefined – “we had to eat outside with our bare hands, surrounded by dogs.”)

This novel is filled with unnamed characters – the narrator in the second half of the novel who is known only as a “torturer” to his parents; Pak Jun Do – Jun Do being a play on John Doe, an unknown man, and a generic name; and even Sun Moon, the national actress who was given the name by Kim Jung Il with the intent of baffling Americans with its irony and sophistication.  Through the use of generic, fake or nameless characters, the author emphasizes that in North Korea, only the collective, or the State matters, not the individual.  In North Korea, there is no “you” or “me,” there is only “us” and “ours.”

The Orphan Master’s Son is a love story that is political, comedic, and tragic at the same time, though it’s hard to say whose love story it is about, or what kind of love it is portraying.  Is it love of country, love of family, love toward the opposite sex, love for the Dear Leader, love for your job, or love of freedom?

Though it is a work of fiction, from what people know, or don’t know about North Korea, it’s hard not to believe the tales of cruelty, oppression, and torture, and it’s also not hard to believe how its citizens have come to accept their fates in the hands of their Dear Leader.

The Orphan Master’s Son may seem intimidating at first because of its seemingly political theme, but don’t let it stop you from reading it.  It gives readers a glimpse, or presents an idea, of a kind of life far removed from the familiar.  It emphasizes the importance of cultural perspectives and the use of Historical Particularism in viewing and analyzing other cultures.  If nothing else, it has an easy narrative style which will draw you in from the beginning and keep you reading till the very last page.


The Orphan Master’s Son (2012) – Adam Johnson

Random House; 443 pages

Personal Rating:  3/5

24 thoughts on “The Orphan Master’s Son

  1. So this probably cured the reading slump? If it doesn’t talk largely about American life, then its winning the Pulitzer is rather questionable (unless the sole factor for this year is readability, which you brought up). Or perhaps North Korean life mirrors America in a lot of ways? Hmm.

    • I’m not sure really why it won over the other 2 finalists. Though I don’t think it’s the 1st winner that isn’t about American Life. I think Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth was about farmers in rural China. Maybe being about American Culture isn’t a definite thing.

      I don’t think it’s really a parody of American life either…unless he’s trying to make a point by writing about a country and culture completely different from the US.

      Btw, I think this book would be a good book to discuss by the goodreads group. So many things to say about it.

  2. The author mentioned several times that Jun Do’s mother was an opera singer. Was she the opera singer that Kim Sung Il said to “cancel” after he discovered Sun Moon on the train?

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