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 him too. This is why despotic figures so often appear to suffer from stomach cramps and other malfunctions of the nervous system.1 Hitler needed an army of doctors, as did Mao. Himmler’s intolerable cramps could be relieved only by the manipulations of his Estonian masseur, who consequently became almost as powerful in the Reichsführer’s court as his astrologer.
I don’t know what ailments Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s late “Dear Leader,” suffered from. His demeanor, on the rare occasions when he appeared in public, hardly suggested robust good health. Ever fearful of assassination, he traveled in private bulletproof trains. The large amounts of money spent on supplying the dictator with crates of the best Hennessy Cognac and the choicest lobsters in the late 1990s, even as millions of North Koreans were starving to death in an entirely avoidable famine, would imply that his belief in the socialist solidarity extolled by his propaganda apparatus was limited.
In any case, Johnson picked the right setting for his dystopian novel. For North Korea under the Dear Leader, and even more perhaps under his father, the Great Leader Kim Il-sung, was the closest thing to a totalitarian state the world has seen. Even under Mao, China was too big and messy for the Communist Party to exert complete control. Russian dissidence was never entirely stamped out, even in the worst days under Stalin. And Hitler never actually tried to manage every aspect of most Germans’ lives.
But North Korea was small and remote enough to be quite effectively sealed off from the outside world, at least until the advent of DVDs and cell phones, now smuggled in from booming Chinese border towns, which must look like Eldorado to hungry North Koreans. On one side is darkness and squalor, on the other are gleaming high-rises lit up like a thousand Christmas trees. The cult of the Kim dynasty, now in its third generation of tyrants, is a mixture of folk religion—complete with miracles and sacred sites—racialist nationalism inflamed by a history of humiliation at foreign hands, Confucian ancestor worship, and a hodgepodge of Leninism-Stalinism-Maoism-Kimism.
Some of this toxic concoction goes down easily enough with many Koreans, and does not always require violent persuasion. But the lie within which North Koreans are forced to live is more extreme than most beliefs that govern closed communities: the state must be seen by its denizens as an earthly paradise ruled by sacred leaders whose rays of brilliance penetrate every corner of our benighted earth. And yet Koreans are no more immune to doubt and intimacy than other human beings. How a person fares when he gives in to these temptations, at a terrible cost, is the story of Adam Johnson’s novel.
The main character, at first, has no idea who he is. Pak Jun Do (the North Korean John Doe) is a child inmate of a ghastly concentration camp for orphans. His mother may have been a beautiful singer who was taken away from him to entertain privileged Party bosses in the capital, Pyongyang. Jun Do imagines that the “orphan master,” who treats him more harshly than other starving boys in the camp, may actually be his father. But he cannot even be sure of that. The world outside the camp is unknown to him. As far as he knows, this is the world, and any sign of inquisitiveness is quickly stifled as it is clearly fraught with danger.
When the great famine of the 1990s became so bad that it could no longer be officially ignored, North Korean propaganda referred to it as an occasion for heroism, taking inspiration from the “Arduous March,” the legendary struggle of Kim Il-sung against the Japanese in World War II, when the Great Leader’s guerrillas allegedly battled, as the official rhetoric has it, “against thousands of enemies in twenty degrees below zero.” But in the camp, the famine needed no name. For Johnson’s Jun Do, “it was everything, every fingernail you chewed and swallowed, every lift of an eyelid, every trip to the latrine where you tried to shit out wads of balled sawdust.”
Passages like this are well documented. Johnson is working with facts. Many of Jun Do’s subsequent adventures are drawn from known events as well, but by turning them into an epic journey experienced by one character, Johnson leaves the documentary realm and enters a world of literary fiction.
We know, for example, that North Koreans have made forays to Japan to kidnap people to bring back as language instructors. (In fact, the Dear Leader went further than that: in the late 1970s a South Korean movie star, Choi Eun-hee, was kidnapped, along with her former husband, the well-known director Shin Sang-ok, to make films in North Korea. After almost ten years in Kim Jong-il’s service they managed to escape during a film festival in Vienna. Shin later had a career in Hollywood, where he changed his name to Simon Sheen and made ninja movies.)
We also know that North Korean soldiers were trained to fight in underground tunnels, where they lived like moles, rarely given the privilege of seeing the light of day. Just as true is the fact that fishing vessels are used for all manner of nefarious purposes, from smuggling guns and drugs to spying on foreign ships and radio communications. Johnson’s harrowing descriptions of mining camps, where blood and organs are harvested from prisoners, have the ring of truth, even if they owe something to the author’s imagination.
The long accounts of fantastic tortures—lobotomies effected by driving long nails into people’s heads, or machines that cause such pain that a person is reduced to being a robot for the rest of his life, without personality or memory, and so on—are made up, but that hideous tortures take place in North Korean prisons is certainly true. There might even be missions to the United States where North Korean government agents meet in secret with American officials, although the scenes of such a meeting set by Johnson in Texas, oddly, seem less plausible to me than his depiction of horrors in North Korea.
Only in an epic novel could we imagine that all these things would happen in the life of one Korean John Doe. Yet this epic quality works. Like Don Quixote, Jun Do is a hero struggling for dignity in a world of illusions. In Quixote’s case, the illusions are self-made. Jun Do fights his way through stories made up by others. It doesn’t actually matter whether everything described in Johnson’s North Korean dystopia is factually true. He has hit upon one particular aspect of life in a totalitarian society that again, perhaps because of its reliance on so much folk mysticism, is especially dramatic in North Korea, which is the central importance of fantasy, of stories, of official narratives, of lies. Everyone in the novel is making up stories. State propagandists do this as a matter of course, but so do individuals trying to escape from punishment or official disgrace.
When a fisherman defects, his colleagues have to invent a story to prevent them from being blamed for failing to stop him. And so they pretend that the defector was thrown to the sharks by vicious American imperialists. When the mission to the US does not have the results desired by Pyongyang, the agents have to make up a tale of dreadful humiliations heaped on them by the dastardly Americans. Lies are piled upon lies. Over and over, we read lines such as this: “What mattered in North Korea was not the man but his story.” The character who says this, a government agent named Dr. Song, also imparts the following wisdom to Jun Do, before he too falls victim to the secret police:
Where we are from, 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.
1 There are several books on this topic. One is Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician (Random House, 1996). Another is Joseph Kessel, The Man with the Miraculous Hands: The Fantastic Story of Felix Kersten, Himmler’s Private Doctor (Burford, 2004). ↩
There are several books on this topic. One is Li Zhisui, The Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Mao’s Personal Physician (Random House, 1996). Another is Joseph Kessel, The Man with the Miraculous Hands: The Fantastic Story of Felix Kersten, Himmler’s Private Doctor (Burford, 2004). ↩