For the second year in a row, a Zombie book has won the Tournament of Books, brought to you by The Morning News. Last year, I completely disagreed with the overall winner. This year, although it wasn't the book I selected to win, I am very happy that The Orphan Master's Son took home the coveted Rooster prize.With North Korea becoming more provocative every day with its talk of war and destruction, this is an apt time for a book about life in the bafflingly combative country. Adam Johnson paints a vivid picture of a country that is secretive, brutal, and as self-destructive as anything else.
Pak Jun Do is the "son" from the title, who grew up in an orphanage run by his father. He learned early on to live two lives, pretending that his father was not related to him so that he could remain in the orphanage.
Jun Do (whose name is a definite nod to John Doe), grows up both anonymous and a mirror of whatever others want to see in him. He becomes a kidnapper for the state, grabbing whoever the country's leaders need from the shores of South Korea and Japan – like a doctor, or a sports pro, or even a prospective bride for a prominent politician.
His life of secrecy, and an ear for other languages, later makes him the perfect spy to be posted on a fishing trawler, listening to radio transmissions from other countries. A pivotal encounter with the U.S. Navy changes everything when Jun Do and his shipmates create a story about one of their number being thrown to the sharks, rather than having to tell the authorities he has escaped. They even go so far as to give Jun Do a severe wound from a dead shark's mouth to lend credence to the story.
Returning to the shores as a "hero," Jun Do is selected by the government to pretend to be a diplomat. His newest mission is to fly to Texas on a secret trip to get concessions from the U.S. government. When he expresses doubt about his ability to convince the Americans of his new identity, his handler Dr. Song tells him, “Where we are from, stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a musical virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano.”
That single quote gets to the heart of this book, and really defines why North Korea could be teetering on the verge of an un-winnable war. The trip to Texas also brings into focus the conundrum that we who have lived in freedom cannot understand about those who have lived under a totalitarian government.
As Jun Do visits the ranch of an influential senator, he looks through family photos and is almost overwhelmed by what he sees: “This was a family start to finish, without wars or famines or political prisons, without a stranger coming to town to drown your daughter.”
But when asked if he would ever want to remain in the U.S., particularly since he has no family ties himself in North Korea, Jun Do asks, “Are there labor camps? Mandatory marriages? Forced-criticism sessions? Loudspeakers?” When he is told that there are none of those things in the U.S., he responds: “Then I’m not sure I could ever feel free here. In my country everything makes simple, clear sense. It’s the most straightforward place on Earth.”
Jun Do returns to his country and to yet another identity. But this time, his new persona is a high-ranking official, and Jun Do has the opportunity to reveal his true self through this facade.
After all, as one of the people he meets in Texas tells him, “A John Doe has an exact identity. It’s just yet to be discovered.”
Although it's a work of fiction, Adam Johnson has added enough of the real-world North Korea to his book to bring the country to life – including details like actual kidnappings, the strange Vinalon fabric that is unique to North Korea, the deprivation, and the sheep-like following that the people seem to have for their government.
Given the almost mind-boggling declarations of superiority coming from Kim Jong-un, The Orphan Master's Son at least offers some sort of explanation, that this is a country that is propped up by its lies to the point where almost no one knows what the truth is anymore.