Cheryl's Reviews > The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
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Apr 25, 13

bookshelves: e-book, fiction, historical-fiction, korea
Read from April 19 to 23, 2013

“And don’t forget citizens: the ban on stargazing is still in effect.”

In the powerful non-fiction book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, a satellite photo shows South Korea heavily lit up, but North Korea in almost complete blackness.
A scene in this book is a riff on that photo, as imagined by a North Korean: “The American citizen, however, is wide awake. You should see a satellite photo of that confused nation at night—it’s one grand swath of light, glaring with the sum of their idle, indolent evenings. Lazy and unmotivated, Americans stay up late, engaging in television, homosexuality, and even religion, anything to fill their selfish appetites.”

The terrifying fear of the government dictated how lives were lived, yet the absolute rule meant that they knew only a life under the Dear Leader, and didn’t know that other possibilities existed. This book is the fictional counterpart to “Nothing to Envy”, and imagines some of the weird world inhabited by the minions of Kim Jong Il.

The course of Jun Do’s life seems arbitrary, subject only to the bizarre and often cruel whims of those who lord power over him. For a few years, he works as a kidnapper for the Korean government (well, everyone is working for the government. The Leader is their Father. They are working for the Glory of their country.) He is part of a team that trawls the coast of Japan, snatching unwary people off beaches and piers, and spiriting them to Korea. It is so bizarre, yet this is actually based on fact. There was a period of a few years in the 90s when this happened.
Their navy base houses missiles which apparently get better treatment than the soldiers: “There was no doctor. The infirmary was just a place where sick soldiers were housed until it was clear they wouldn’t recover. If the young soldier hadn’t improved by morning, the MPs would hook up a blood line and drain four units from him. Jun Do had seen it before, and as far as he could tell, it was the best way to go. It only took a couple of minutes—first they got sleepy, then a little dreamy looking, and if there was a last little panic at the end, it didn’t matter because they couldn’t talk anymore, and finally, before lights out, they looked pleasantly confused, like a cricket with its feelers pulled off.”

In one phase, he somehow ends up being a translator for a small governmental envoy that travels to Texas. They are hosted by a powerful senator who is determined to show them good ole American hospitality. It is here that Jun Do begins to understand his own oppression. “When the dogs returned, the Senator gave them treats from his pocket, and Jun Do understood that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.”

The cruelty of the regime is unimaginable. To survive means to become part of the regime, and to conform. Jun Do works for a while in a prison camp -- the inmates are photographed on entry, and photographed again in the act of dying as their blood is drained into bags.

Some horrors are likely culture-based. They do not regard dogs as pets, they are just another animal. “A group of stage mothers from the Children’s Palace Theater was enlisted to make the gift baskets. While calfskin could not be found for the making of gloves, the most supple replacement—puppy—was chosen.” This wouldn’t have seemed so repugnant if the word ‘kidskin’ instead of ‘puppy’ was used.

These horrors are described secondarily, to provide context for the story, which is about a boy who becomes a man, and eventually decides he will create choice, and find his way to his love.

Jun Do gets the chance to choose one DVD to take back with him to North Korea. It is “Casablanca”. Later sequences in the book are like distorted surreal scenes from Casablanca. Claude Rains says “Round up the usual suspects." The Korean says, “Detain all the citizens, confirm their IDs.” Of course, we can’t help but think, “We’ll always have Paris…” and wonder if that's how it will turn out.
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Reading Progress

04/19/2013 page 68
15.0%
04/20/2013 page 109
24.0% "“Use your imagination only on the future, never on the present or the past”" 2 comments
04/22/2013 page 261
58.0% "From the perspective of a North Korean: “The American citizen, however, is wide awake. You should see a satellite photo of that confused nation at night—it’s one grand swath of light, glaring with the sum of their idle, indolent evenings. Lazy and unmotivated, Americans stay up late, engaging in television, homosexuality, and even religion, anything to fill their selfish appetites.”"

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Fantastic review, love that quote about the perception of a city lit up at night. Sounds like this is quite a great book, and worthy of the pulitzer. Well done!


Cheryl s.penkevich wrote: "Fantastic review, love that quote about the perception of a city lit up at night. Sounds like this is quite a great book, and worthy of the pulitzer. Well done!"
It ticked off all the boxes for the Pulitzer -- well written, some great lines, just a bit unusual in the story structure, exotic setting, mysterious society, all bundled up around a story of human longing. Thanks for your kind words.


message 3: by s.penkevich (new)

s.penkevich Ha yeah, definitely was a prime candidate. And it's rather timely with all the buzz about what's going on there lately. I'll have to check this out, you sell it well!


message 4: by Jeanette (new)

Jeanette  "Astute Crabbist" Ooh, Casablanca, what a good choice! Excellent review, Cheryl.


Cheryl Jeanette wrote: "Ooh, Casablanca, what a good choice! Excellent review, Cheryl."
The Casablanca references and parallels were a nice touch; they were a bit funny, all things considered. There were light touches throughout -- it surprisingly didn't feel depressingly weighted. Thanks Jeannette.


☯Bettie☯ 4*!?

Me likey that result!
:O)


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