"In Mexico, there are these fish that have colonized the freshwater caves along Sierra del Abra. They were lost. They found themselves living in complete darkness. But they didn’t die. Instead, they thrived. They adapted. They lost their pigmentation, their sight, eventually even their eyes. With survival, they became hideous. I’ve rarely thought about what I once was. But I wonder if a ray of light were to make it into the cave, would I be able to see it? Or feel it? Would I gravitate to its warmth? And if I did, would I become less hideous?"
~Reddington, The Blacklist
When I was fourteen years old, my father bought me a shabby copy of a paperback from a book sale written by an author named Harlan Coben. It's entitled Just One Look and it was about a housewife who discovers a weird photograph among her family pictures just after she had the film developed. She showed it to her husband who started acting strange until he just disappeared one night. What reeled me in wasn't really the mystery of this plot but the role and participation of its main antagonist, a twenty-six-year old contract killer named Eric Wu who grew up in North Korea and was trained as a master torturer of sorts, using a martial art that targets pressure points across the human body. He utilizes this technique to inflict pain all throughout the novel, and his chapters are just electrifying to see unfold. Wu was calculating, terrifyingly apathetic and often amusing in his contemplations. You get the sense that because of his upbringing and brutal encounters as a child who grew up in such an oppressive state, he has a unique way of examining things. He stands separate from the rest of the world, looking from the outside with a ready shrug of the shoulders while the rest of us form meaningful relationships, and fulfil our dreams and goals. For a man like Eric Wu, life is simply about survival; hurt or be hurt, kill or be killed.
It wasn't until I read him in his very first appearance in yet another Coben novel Tell No One that my fascination for this character grew and evolved into something that can only be described as a consuming obsession that lasted for a decade since high school. My connection with this fictional character also fostered my interest in North Korea as a country. In trying to understand the extensive damage of Eric Wu, I also started to take an active stance in comprehending said communist state. Researching North Korea was simply my secret hobby that only a few of my friends can understand. I was insatiably curious of the life and culture of that country, and so this is initially what made me buy this book the moment I laid eyes on it one day about eight months ago. I didn't know anything about it. I simply took it out of the shelf and read the back of the book. Just the fact that it's about North Korea was enough incentive but I put off reading this because my Batman comics diet got in the way. Now here I am at last. I just spent two weeks reading this novel and I felt numb all over right after finishing it. It had been very personal for me; the culmination of ten years worth of slightly abnormal fixation that brought me to the heart of this story.
I find that some books can just physically hurt you, and there is no way of knowing which ones will leave the most scars. I am sure even a hundred pages in last week that this book will leave me a gaping wound that will take a while to heal.
"People do things to survive, and then after they survive, they can't live with what they have done."
I recently just acquired a taste for dystopian stories which was why most of the science fiction books I've read since Brave New World four years ago focus on that, and it's funny that something a lot of us seek and partake so eagerly in fiction can and actually do exist in the real world. North Korea is the nightmarish dystopia come to life, based from several accounts of citizens who have defected, and the experiences of tourists who were brave enough to navigate it. Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son is something I can consider a fine work of imaginative fiction because it aimed to capture and define the essence of what it must be like to live in a communist state that denies its constituents a sense of identity and individuality; where propaganda is as rampant as it is a basic component of the daily lives of its people.
To live in North Korea must be like breathing in a place where a man who fancies himself a god among men rules a starving nation and can determine their fates based on whatever whim pleases him; the people are just dead leaves, crushed by the tyrant’s weight, and then swept away.
The Orphan Master's Son is a four-hundred-plus narrative that is divided into two parts. First, we have the protagonist Pak Jun Do and his biography, while the other is the confessions of Commander Ga, the supposedly rival political figure of the then-current Great Leader himself, Kim Jong-Il. The first part is akin to a coming-of-age story for Jun Do who was the son of the caretaker of the orphanage Long Tomorrows. Jun Do named the orphans after martyrs from the Japanese-Korean strife, and he himself picked the name "Pak Jun Do" because of its personal significance to him (which is somewhat of a foreshadowing too). Jun Do believed that his father is unable to show his love because of the loss of his mother whom he insisted was a singer spirited away to Pyongyang because of her beauty and talent. This fantasy served as an ember of hope for him growing up, and he continued to cling to it quite fiercely even as an adult man. Its poignancy affected me greatly, most probably because Coben's Eric Wu also lost his mother (in the most horrendous way possible; she was tortured, executed then hanged in front of him--he was six years old). It's also a notable pattern for Jun Do to seek women as if each one is just another reflection of a mother he never had. This will consistently play out for the rest of the novel.
By the second part, a new character becomes the second narrator who relays certain key events in his perspective. He remained unnamed throughout the book and all that we really knew about him was that he was a dedicated worker; an interrogator who wishes to write biographies about the people who were captured and detained once they were considered as traitors or dissidents to the Kim regime. He strongly believed that what matters in the end when all is said and done would be the stories of individuals who will disappear and be long forgotten. In North Korea, people are expenditures whose relevance is always temporary, if not non-existent. This unnamed narrator acknowledges that which was why he develops an attachment to Commander Ga whose biography he desperately wants to write.
"Little by little, you relinquished everything, starting with your tomorrows and all that might be. Next went your past, and suddenly it was inconceivable that you once used a spoon or a toilet. Before you relinquish yourself, you let go of all the others, each person you'd once known. They became ideas and then notions and then impressions, and then they were as ghostly as projections against a prison infirmary."
Adam Johnson creates an ugly and harrowing yet memorable and moving portrait of what it must be like for North Korean families who live their lives in such a harsh landscape where all its hues have gone dark. It's a place where there they have to acquire and use ration cards for food, alcohol and cigarettes. It's where sex is not necessarily something you have to pay for, so long as you have coupon books that can be stamped every time you were with a prostitute. Everything right from the basic needs is organized by your government, including vices and indulgences. In The Orphan Master's Son, we can read about Jun Do's personal encounters with failed defections, as well as participating in outright abductions of Japanese citizens who are unfortunate enough to stand near the ocean where the perpetrators can grab them and take them away forever.
This is a place of constant propaganda blaring on loudspeakers; where its movies are singularly centered around the portrayal of North Korea as both the victim of American corruption who rose as a champion against the filth of its capitalism. These films always have the actress Sun Moon as its only lead, and she is considered a national icon handpicked by the Great Leader himself, and she later on becomes the reason why Jun Do started to desire things beyond the confines of his cage.
North Korea is where prison and labor camps await families of anyone who tries to leave the country, and where widows must receive replacement husbands as assigned by the government. In North Korea, dogs are not household pets but rather illegal wild animals kept in zoos. These are the situations author Johnson chooses to depict and they become increasingly more significant later on in the story. The protagonist Pak Jun Do, in spite of the consuming darkness that shaped and distorted his life, possesses a light that can never be extinguished even when he was not aware of it himself at first. In spite of being programmed early on to accept the casual cruelty of his surroundings, if not directly implement it on others, Jun Do was still capable of compassion and insight which allowed him to develop a keen sense of curiosity and sense of justice for lives he unintentionally had to destroy to make it out alive. While most people in that environment have become passive of their impoverished state, Jun Do slowly begins to question the status quo as he searches for a freedom he had never known is something we all fundamentally deserve and strive for. With knowledge of the outside world naturally comes the desire to become a part of it after all.
"Intimate," he said. "I do not know this word."
"You know, close," Wanda replied, "When two people share everything, when there are no secrets between them."
After being rewarded for stopping a co-worker from defecting, Jun Do was sent to a Language school where he learned English. He began staying in a fishing vessel as a communications expert whose job function is to listen and record radio transmissions. A notable one belonged to a pair of American female athletes who dared themselves to row a boat across the world. He finds himself drawn to the one who rows at night and her audio journals of the trip which filled him with a sense of unnamed longing. In the ship, he develops a camaraderie with the Captain who was almost like a father figure to him, and the Second Mate who later on tries to defect. This fishing expedition part of the first installment has to be my most favorite arc of the book. It left me with a sense of hope and dread all at once because of how intense and gruelling the experiences of Jun Do and the crew are once they encountered a group of American soldiers. I feared for their lives, honestly, and found their resourcefulness during and after that event to be amusing as well as pitiful.
It was by this part of the story that we become more intimate with how deep and crippling the fear that North Koreans have towards their own government that they are willing to invent tales to evade the possibility of being arrested and tortured for treason.
My second favorite arc has to be when Jun Do was requested to come to the United States, specifically to Texas, as a civilian representative of the DPRK together with two other officials, and they met with a state senator, the federal agent that Jun Do only knew as Wanda, and the senator's Christian wife. This is where Jun Do was able to interact with foreigners (specifically Wanda) and their cultural differences are immediately vast, where both of them are unknowable to each other. Wanda asked him if he ever felt free and Jun Do has a different concept and definition for what 'freedom' is in his country, as well as what love and beauty is for someone who grew up in a place seemingly bereft of such things. Jun Do was also able to make a brief connection with the Senator's wife who was touched by Jun Do's story concerning the actress Sun Moon whom he has learned to pretend to be his wife while he was at sea. Her face had been tattooed to his chest because the Captain insisted on it for the sake of maintaining his cover as part of their crew.
Pak Jun Do never ceases to be such an engrossing voice of the narrative. Reading him becoming aware of his own autonomy and personal desires has evoked powerful emotions from me, considering I've always been fairly individualistic myself. To live a life not knowing real independence or not having the ability to make my own choices is something so frightening to me in a visceral level which is probably why this novel has gripped me with possessive claws and refused to let me go every time I turned a page. It's a rather exhilarating experience!
"He had been raised in an environment that stressed the power of men and the subordination of women, but Eric Wu had always found it to be more hope than truth. Women were harder. They were more unpredictable. They handled physical pain better--he knew this from personal experience. When it came to protecting their loved ones, they were far more ruthless. Men would sacrifice themselves out of machismo or stupidity or the blind belief that they would be victorious. Women would sacrifice themselves without self-deception."
~Just One Look, Harlan Coben
The women in Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son are the central figures and often catalysts that inspired Pak Jun Do to seek liberation, autonomy and intimacy. From the fantasy of his mother whom he never met, Jun Do would find himself feeling for each suffering woman he became acquainted with throughout the book. We have the Second Mate's wife, a great beauty who wanted to travel to Pyongyang to be an actress, hoping she has a shot of a better life by starring in movies. There's the federal agent Wanda who was willing to listen and encourage Jun Do to form his opinions and she unknowingly helps him figure out that there are certain liberties he wants to achieve by living as a person who can make his own choices outside of government control. There's also the Senator's wife who expresses her sadness over the fact that Jun Do has no religion or spirituality to keep him afloat, and tries to give him a gift he can bring home to his wife Sun Moon, his pretend-spouse.
To a lesser extent, we also have the American female athlete who rowed at night. She was then detained by North Korean coast guards and was offered as a special prisoner to Kim Jong-Il. Jun Do also becomes friends with a woman named Mongnan in a labor camp at the mines and she was rumoured to be a former university professor who, along some of her students in class, publicly protested the injustices of the Kim government.
Of all this women, the one who stands apart is the deceptively delicate Sun Moon who is favored personally by the Great Leader so he made her the sole star of all his propaganda movies. She was the treasure of the big screen, and the roles she played as an actress have endeared her to the nation and its citizens. The rest of the second part of the book is devoted to the dynamics and gradual relationship between Jun Do and Sun Moon, and his plans to help her and her children defect from North Korea. Theirs is not a story of easy romance; one might argue it was born out of coincidence and convenience, and they may not be wrong. But their relationship can't also be simplified that harshly because it was through Jun Do that Sun Moon finally found the courage and means to get out of the unhealthy arrangement she has with the Great Leader, while she in return taught Jun Do the meaning of sacrifice and love, as well the gift of song and completeness.
"Oh, I know what you are. You know what that is? You're a survivor with nothing to live for. Wouldn't you rather die for something you cared about?"
Overall, reading The Orphan Master's Son has to be the most intimate way I have ever experienced a work of fiction. It was tantalizing and enduring in vision and message. I think my fixation for North Korea found a more grounded purpose because of what this novel personally symbolized for me.
Though it's punishingly intricate to read, it was also supremely masterful in every way, reeling me in completely until I felt as though I am also a captive myself. This novel is a daring feat of imagination that examines and challenges our own convictions and beliefs about what it truly means to be free by showing us what oppression, hunger and poverty feels and tastes like. We often neglect and take for granted how blessed we are for the many options and opportunities we have in our lives every day, and The Orphan Master's Son is the kind of book that reaffirms exactly that, if not shame us with our own ignorance, self-entitlement and privilege.
DOCUMENTARIES YOU CAN WATCH ABOUT NK: