North Korea laid bare – The Orphan Master’s Son

Adam Johnson talked about his book The Orphan Master’s Son at the University of Sydney as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Johnson’s larger-than-life charisma bent my arm to buy his book. The Orphan Master’s Son won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2013. Johnson is also the recipient of The Whiting Writers’ Award, author of Emporium, a short story collection and winner of California Book Award for the novel Parasites Like Us.

The Orphan Master’s Son is an epic narrative, categorised as a thriller, a love story and a political dystopia – compared with classic dystopian novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four. Johnson defines it as a trauma narrative; he specialises in this area of creative writing at Stanford University. Set in recent times in the Communist dictatorship of North Korea, the novel’s complex, multi-voiced narrative is characteristic of a trauma narrative – telling the story out-of-order, fragmented like a broken mirror.

It reveals the tyranny of present-day North Korea through multiple voices; Jun Do (a solider turned kidnapper turned surveillance officer,) dictator Kim Jong Il (who died in December), Commander Ga and the voices of the propaganda loudspeaker. Laced with parody, the character Jun Do is a homonym for ‘John Doe,’ the western name for the unnamed. Johnson discussed the epistemological notion that, as westerners, we are the main character in our lives. We make goals and fulfill dreams through growth, change, meaning and discovery. In North Korea, the state is the main character. Here, dreams and communication hinder your life and cast you under suspicion. The humour, often darkly comedic, is a welcome relief for the reader to placate the brutality of torture and prison.

Johnson talked to Jang Jin-sung at Sydney Writers’ Festival in a sell-out event; Enemy of the State. Johnson said his proudest achievement from writing The Orphan Master’s Son was the respect he received from Jang Jin-sung; author and defector from North Korea. Though he visited North Korea and based the novel on fact, Johnson was worried about having incorrectly depicted lives, given it was so difficult to access information either about people or literature. The only reading material available to North Koreans is the propaganda and glory of Kim Jong Il. The only literature Jang Jin-sang read was Lord Byron, he was astounded to discover people wrote about trees, the ocean, birds and other people.

Testimony to the importance of lending a legitimate voice to North Koreans, who don’t have one, The Orphan Master’s Son opens our eyes to the mysteries and horrors, to the humanness in the face of inhumanity, of the most backward and isolated country on earth.

Rating: 4 ****

The Orphan Masters Son

Kim Jon Il, aged 3

Kim Jon Il, aged 3


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