A “Reader’s Guide” accompanying the paperback edition of Adam Johnson’s much-acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel might suggest that the book is about North Korea. In an interview with his editor, David Ebershoff, Johnson mentions the vast amount of research he has done on that country, the books read, the people interviewed, and how much of his story is drawn from facts. Added to the interview is a list of suggested topics for discussion, presumably aimed at college students, including the following: “How should the rest of the world respond to the violence and tyranny of present-day North Korea? Do we have a moral obligation to intervene?” This seems an odd way to approach a work of fiction.
In fact, The Orphan Master’s Son is no more about North Korea than The Merchant of Venice is about Venice under the doges. North Korea is the setting for an imaginary story about a man who gradually, though always dramatically, discovers his own humanity in a state that does everything to suppress it.
Two human qualities that any totalitarian system will attempt to stamp out are doubt and personal intimacy, for both threaten the total control of individuals by the state. Such a system not only strives to be in command of individual lives—everything from the work people do to the relationships they form—but the way reality, past, present, and future, is to be publicly, and as far as possible even privately, perceived. To express any hint of skepticism about the official truth promoted by state propaganda is to put that whole enterprise at risk, and must therefore be punished without mercy. Intimacy, or indeed any emotional attachment to other human beings apart from loyalty to the state and its rulers, must be rooted out for the same reason. That is why children are encouraged to inform on their parents.
The effect on human beings is to stunt their capacity for emotional or intellectual development, to turn them into grotesque human bonsai. Václav Havel called this “living within the lie.” If the rulers claim that black is white, everyone must pretend that black is indeed white, thus producing a state of collective madness, or pretended madness; and the distinction may not always be so clear.
The state of unreality affects the rulers as much as the ruled, though not always in the same way. If the ruler really believes his own propaganda, that he is the greatest genius/war hero/artist/holy man who ever lived, then he must be insane. But even if he doesn’t believe it for a minute, he cannot afford to show doubt any more than his subjects, and he has to live within the lie as well. And since the absolute ruler’s control can never be total enough, he is in a constant state of anxiety. No one can be trusted and so intimacy becomes impossible for …