“Better than the truth”: The Orphan Master’s Son


It is a true story of love and sorrow, of faith and endurance . . . Sadly, there is tragedy. Yet there is redemption, too! And taekwondo!

What would it be like to live in a world where it is better not to know what happened to someone you love — where lies becomes the truth and truth lies, where props and costumes are interchangeable with the elements of real life? How do you find a way to make your life worth living when you don’t even know for sure who you are? What story do you tell about that life, or about yourself, when what you need is not a story “anyone could really believe” but “a story they can use”?

This is the grim, terrifying, funny, surreal world of Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, which is the best book I’ve read all summer. (It may be the best book I’ve read all year.) That the world Johnson conjures up so memorably is not a fictional dystopia but, as far as his research and his imagination can determine, the actual world of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea makes his novel only more painful and affecting. In the author interview included with the novel, Johnson notes that “most of the shocking aspects in my book are sourced from the real world,” but, he adds

I felt I actually had to tone down much of the real darkness of North Korea, as in the kwan li so gulags, the reports of which were so harrowing — forced abortions, amputations, communal executions — that I invented the blood harvesting as a less savage stand-in.

Yet many of these details are in The Orphan Master’s Son, if only in passing, and it’s hard to contemplate what a darker version might read like, never mind be like:

When I first arrived at Division 42, the preferred method of reforming corrupted citizens was the lobotomy. . . All you needed was a twenty-centimeter nail. You’d lay the subject out on a table and sit on his chest. . . . Careful not to puncture anything, you’d run the nail in along the top of the eyeball, maneuvering it until you felt the bone at the back of the socket. Then with your palm, you gave the head of the nail a good thump. After punching through the orbital, the nail moved freely through the brain. Then it was simple: insert fully, shimmy to the left, shimmy to the right, repeat with other eye. . .

We were told there were whole lobotomy collectives where former subversives now knew nothing but good-natured labor for the benefit of all. But the truth proved far different. I went with Sarge once . . . to interrogate a guard at one of these collectives, and we discovered no model labor farm. The actions of all were blunted and stammering. The laborers would rake the same patch of ground countless times and witlessly fill in holes they’d just dug. They cared not whether they were clothed or naked and relieved themselves at will.

Part of the brilliance of the novel, I think, is that Johnson neither lays out these horrors in prosaic exposition — more explanation would not make more sense of them, after all, and might only smother their human impact — nor overwhelms us  with the scale of the national trauma that is his underlying subject. The novel is full of individual trauma, both directly represented and indirectly indicated, and the layers of meaning Johnson builds up prompt us to scale up their ruinous experience without losing ourselves in abstractions. Eventually it’s clear that the protagonist, the orphan Jun Do, is (as his name suggests) a kind of John Doe, an everyman, who stands in for all the lost individuality of his countrymen; his dreams, his love, his desperation, and his courage are the distilled essence of the humanity of a population forced into lives of near-total artifice and repression. But Johnson makes him too much himself to be reduced to an allegorical figure or for his story to be read only in such formulaic terms.

The first part of the novel proceeds chronologically, taking us along on Jun Do’s journey from the orphanage to Prison 33 and, less literally, from an unquestioning servant of the state to a man who “hated his small, backward homeland, a land of mysteries and ghosts and mistaken identities.”  The second part begins with the arrival at Division 42 for interrogation of a man known as Commander Ga; we gradually reconstruct the events that brought him there.

What is the truth of this man’s identity? Earlier in the novel, Jun Do told a story about his life that caused him to be mistaken for Commander Ga. Like all stories in this unsettling world, this one is as true as its effects make it, as authoritative as those who believe in and act on it. When people can disappear and then simply be replaced, no identity is authentic or lasting — you become who you are said to be. “Where we are from,” explains an older comrade to Jun Do,

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.

“If they say you’re an orphan, then you’re an orphan,” Jun Do explains in his turn, to a puzzled American handler during an unlikely visit to Texas that is among the sadder and more surreal sequences in the novel:

If they tell you to go down a hole, well, you’re suddenly a guy who goes down holes. If they tell you to hurt people, then it begins. . . if they tell him to go to Texas to tell a story, suddenly he’s nobody but that.

In this world, once “the Dear Leader has declared you the real Commander Ga,” you are Commander Ga . . . until someone declares it otherwise. After all, what matters is not that the story be either true or believable, but that it be useful. The result is not always destructive:

“People find your movies inspiring,” he said.

“Do they?”

“I find them inspiring. And your acting shows people that good can come from suffering, that it can be noble. That’s better than the truth.”

“Which is?”

“That there’s no point to it. It’s just a thing that sometimes has to be done and even if thirty thousand suffer with you, you suffer alone.”

Though the first part of the novel is gripping reading, with flawless control over tone and pacing, I found Johnson’s technical accomplishment most impressive in the second part. As we shuttle between the narrative of the otherwise unnamed Interrogator, the continuing story of Commander Ga, and the official version of events (told as if installments of the ‘Best North Korean Story’) the novel never loses its coherence or its momentum. Indeed, during the final sections, as the pieces fall into place and the Casablanca allusions take on their full relevance, I found the suspense entirely nerve-wracking. Johnson is as masterful at different voices — and as fluent in multiple genres — as David Mitchell, but reading Cloud Atlas the display of writerly ingenuity distanced me from the novel, whereas reading The Orphan Master’s Son I just felt pulled deeper and deeper in. He’s especially artful with the sanitized banality of the official communiqués: while these initially seem like comic interludes, they become increasingly sinister because we realize they will overpower the other stories (the true stories, the human stories) they subsume. The ebullient doublespeak is particularly revolting because we know what it denies — for instance, that there are no “retired” people at the “resort” of Wonsan:

“Please,” she said. “Give me the joy of seeing my mother at the premiere.”

Citizens, citizens. Ours is a culture that respects the elderly, that grants them their need of rest and solitude in the final years. After a life of labor, haven’t they earned some remote quietude? Can’t the greatest nation on earth spare a little silence for the aged? . . . But we throw up our hands. Who can deny Sun Moon? Ever the exception, so pure of emotion is she.

“She’ll be sitting in the front row,” the Dear Leader told her. “I guarantee.”

Citizens, if the Dear Leader says it, that settles it. Nothing could prevent Sun Moon’s mother from attending that movie premiere now. Only an utterly unforeseeable occurrence — a train mishap, possibly, or regional flooding — could stand in the way of this joyous reunion. Nothing short of a diphtheria quarantine or a military sneak attack could keep Sun Moon’s dreams from coming true!

It’s not just that we know the train mishap or military sneak attack need not actually happen to be the excuse for  Sun Moon’s mother never reappearing: it’s that everyone knows it, and there’s no recourse against the abusively cheerful tissue of lies. Johnson tells us that “much of the propaganda, especially the funnier lines, I pulled straight from the pages of Pyongyang’s Rodong Sinmun Workers’ Party newspaper.” When the line between satire and realism disappears, we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. How can intolerable suffering be made so absurd?

It isn’t really absurd, of course. The juxtaposition of stories and voices allows us to realize the many dimensions of pain and grief, and how people’s suffering is exacerbated by its denial and by the state’s relentless revisionism. Our laughter is initially at the transparent and self-serving dishonesty of the state communiqués: their buffoonery defies belief. By the end, though, those jaunty narratives filled me with unsettling rage: that they have the last word seems the ultimate violation of the people whose lives they have made a mockery of. That it’s true, though fictional, is the most appalling thing of all.

The Interrogator’s library of confessions is one form of resistance within the novel to these offenses against human dignity. In creating his “citizen biographies” he believes he is preserving something otherwise lost, and certainly not present in the Central Records office, as he realizes when he looks at his parents’ files:

the files were filled with dates and stamps and grainy images and informant quotes and reports from housing blocks, factory committees, district panels, volunteer details, and Party boards. Yet there was no real information in them, no sense of who these two old people were, what brought them from Manpo to be line workers for life at the Testament to the Greatness of Machines factory.

 But even his meticulously bound confessions, which contain “an entire life, with all its subtleties and motivations,” are worth less than intimacy, a concept that is initially hard for him to understand:

Intimacy? What is that?”

“It’s when two people share everything, when there are no secrets between them.”

I had to laugh. “No secrets?” I asked him. “It’s not possible. We spend weeks extracting entire biographies from subjects, and always when we hook them up to the autopilot, they blurt out some crucial detail we’d missed. So getting every secret out of someone, sorry, it’s just not possible.”

“No,” Ga said. “She gives you her secrets. And you give her yours.”

At the end, the Interrogator has “finally been intimate,” and in that voluntary sharing of what he knows to be true he finds the most precious freedom of all: the freedom to be himself. That in his world this epiphany is no prelude to a happy ending is the ultimate and grimly predictable catastrophe of The Orphan Master’s Son. The only hint of grace is that in his final suffering, though he does not know the real identity of the man he’s with, at least he is not alone. That’s not much, but perhaps it’s better than the truth.

5 thoughts on ““Better than the truth”: The Orphan Master’s Son

  1. Colleen September 3, 2013 / 10:57 pm

    I’d better read this. It was that bit about Mitchell’s distancing virtuosity vs Johnson’s opposite version of same that got me.


  2. Susan Messer September 4, 2013 / 10:49 pm

    Thanks for another excellent, insightful review (look out NY Times book section; this is the quality of the competition).

    I chose this book for my reading group (discussion was the beginning of August), and members responded enthusiastically, which is something one always wants for one’s selection–that members will respond energetically to the choice (even if they don’t particularly “like” it) and have plenty to discuss. Still, when the discussion was over, I felt unsettled, and this feeling continued into the next days. Perhaps it was the “don’t know whether to laugh or cry” response, but after a discussion with my group, I often feel that I have a deeper, more organized understanding of a book, and this time, I still wasn’t sure how I felt or what I thought. Still not entirely sure, though you review pulls things together for me to some extent. Perhaps my response is appropriate after all; should one have an “organized” response to such anguish?

    During our discussion, I mentioned to the group that horrifying image of the nails in the brain, said that it haunted me, seemed almost un-sayable, but perhaps if I was allowed to say it out loud to them, I could to some extent recover. One member said, “Thanks, Susan. I’d managed to forget that one.” And everyone laughed. Interesting to see you quote that passage.

    It’s really huge to think of Adam Johnson allowing himself to imagine all that horror in all that detail. It’s hard for me not to think about the impact on the novelist himself, taking all that on. Of course, he executed it brilliantly–building the story and the voices in such a complex way.


    • Rohan September 6, 2013 / 4:26 pm

      Susan, I think you are on to something when you wonder about whether we even should have an organized response. I too felt unsettled — especially, as I guess this post shows, by those ‘official’ versions of the story. We learn to see through them to something more like the truth, but that they are such transparent lies makes them harder, rather than easier, to cope with. Yes: how does a novelist immerse himself in this world? Perhaps fiction allows him some escape routes that non-fiction would not. I was briefly tempted to read some of the documentary writing about North Korea that’s available but chickened out.


      • Patricia LeJeune November 12, 2014 / 3:05 pm

        I would just like say that if you do some simple research, you will see that the atrocities done to thousands of people daily are far worse than what the author has written. Adam Johnson’s book in fact, spares us as to how bad it really is for those poor souls that had the bad luck to be born on North Korea. It is horrific that most people in the world today don’t really know what really goes on in the DPRK. I knew there were prisons but didn’t know the extent of how they operated. This is one of the hardest books I have ever read and one of the best.


        • Rohan Maitzen November 14, 2014 / 9:42 pm

          Thank you for your comment, Patricia. I don’t doubt that if anything, Johnson has spared us the very worst: as I say in the post, I know he himself did extensive research. I chose not to read more myself because I felt I didn’t want or need, at that point, to know more. I agree that this is a remarkable novel.


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