The Orphan Master's Son: A novel

by Adam Johnson

Paper Book, 2012




New York : Random House Trade Paperbacks, c2012.


The Orphan master's son follows a young man's journey through the icy waters, dark tunnels, and eerie spy chambers of the world's most mysterious dictatorship, North Korea.

Media reviews

Library Journal
"Readers who enjoy a fast-paced political thriller will welcome this wild ride through the amazingly conflicted world that exists within the heavily guarded confines of North Korea. Highly recommended. "

User reviews

LibraryThing member clfisha
Stunningly brilliant dystopia

“The key to fighting in the dark is to perceive your opponent, sense him, and never use your imagination. The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.”

This is on one level a very gripping adventure tale of Pak Jun Do, an orphan who survives the horrific famine () to be become a tunnel fighter, a kidnapper and a spy. It also a love story of a Commander Ga and his wife, a torturers story of dissolution and loss, a mad cap caper of diplomatic one-upmanship and the winning tale of the Best North Korean Story.

It’s a very scary, horrific, hugely funny, utterly gripping, heartfelt and bonkers tale of a very real dystopia. It is a story that carries a stark warning on the evil and power of stories; an anti story in two parts, with different narrators (1st person and third) that create a loving chaotic jumble that works solely as a damn fine story at the same time whetting your intellectual taste buds. Did I mention that is very very well written?

“Where we are from, he said, 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....But in America, people's stories change all the time. In America, it is the man who matters.”

Its trick, for me, is to overcome all the faults I have with dystopian fiction and grab the reader’s imagination and thrust it so deeply into a different culture that when you meet Americans for the 1st time your head explodes with the oddity. Johnson draws an amazing sense of place then fleshes it out with tiny details like the shock of a blank wall (sans Dear Leader photo) and imbues it with characters that fit just so. It hooks you in and never lets you rest as it’s so packed with plot. It will make you complicit in the lies of the anti-story because we know so much more.. the orphan master's son? sure he is, and then lie to you and twist your expectations (but never cruelly)

Of course it depends on what you want from the book. It doesn't have a linear narrative nor is it a factual account of North Korea, research was done and liberties taken. It is at once very dark and insane but not nearly as dark or insane as the reality and if that doesn't give you pause for thought I don't know what will. I guess it could be said to be too clever for its own good but I think that’s a matter of taste.

I loved this book and I highly recommend it. Literature and story lovers, adventure fiends and Dystopia fans will find something of interest here. Without a doubt one of the best books I have read all year.

"Jun Do never looked. He knew the televisions were huge and there was all the rice you could eat. Yet he wanted no part of it - he was scared that if he saw it with his own eyes, his entire life would mean nothing. Stealing turnips from an old man who'd gone blind from hunger? That would have been for nothing."… (more)
LibraryThing member brenzi
Harrowing. Terrifying. And probably, for the most part, not at all far-fetched. Adam Johnson’s novel of life in the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea during the Kim Jong Il era follows the life of Pak Jun Do, whose mother was a singer, stolen away to Pyongyang. At the Long Tomorrows work camp for orphans, which his father runs, Jun Do decided “which boys would eat first and which were left with watery spoonfuls…it was he who assigned the bunks next to the stove and the ones in the hall where blackfinger lurked.” Soon he comes to the attention of higher ups and is used as a kidnapper of unsuspecting Japanese as they stroll the sometimes lonely coast between the two countries. Soon he is trained in language school and assigned to a fishing boat where, using a radio, he tracks other ships and the elusive American woman who is rowing around the world. He becomes a national hero when one of his shipmates defects in a lifeboat and the crew makes up a story whereby the American Navy boarded their ship, threw the crewmate overboard and Jun Do, in trying to save his friend, suffers severe injuries during a shark attack. Being a hero in North Korea comes with grave responsibilities and from there he accompanies a delegation to Texas where he gets his first glimpse of life outside of North Korea. And that’s just in Part One.

Part Two is longer and we find our hero with a new identity. It takes a few pages to realize that we’re still talking about Jun Do although he is now known as Commander Gah. This part of the book continues the third person narrative alternately with the first person narrative of Gah’s interrogator. And it is in Part Two that Gah finds love, family and sacrifices all to overcome the desires of Kim Jong Il.

Throughout the book the overriding theme is the oppression of the North Korean people until you want to throw your hands up in the air and cry, “Can’t anything be done about this?” Just like in Barbara Demick’s non-fiction account of life in North Korea, Nothing to Envy, Johnson brings out all the gruesome facts: torture, starvation, and the overriding influence and power of “Our Dear Leader.” So much so that I started to wonder if this wasn’t over kill. Every apartment is equipped with a loudspeaker where the state bombastically spews their views every day, several times a day. And the citizens had better be listening:

“Citizens, we bring good news! In your kitchens, in your offices, on your factory floors—wherever you hear this broadcast, turn up the volume! The first success we have to report is that our Grass into Meat Campaign is a complete triumph. Still, much more soil needs to be hauled to the rooftops, so all housing-block managers are instructed to schedule extra motivation meetings.” (Page 218)

This is not a perfect book by any means but riveting? Heart-pounding? Oh my, yes. I couldn’t put it down. It moves back and forth in time and is somewhat hard to follow at times, and then there’s all that torture, but the terrific writing and the sheer adrenalin rush make it very worthwhile. And in years to come if you want to consider what kind of impact Kim Jong Il had on the people he abused for so many year you can turn to this book and see what the unfortunate citizens of North Korea endured. Very highly recommended for those who are not squeamish.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
In the same way that it's a minor miracle that Lawrence Wright's "Going Clear," an expose of the aggressively litigious Church of Scientology exists, it's a minor miracle that Adam Johnson's "The Orphan Master's Son" exists. The interview that's included in the "Reader's Circle" edition of the book is enlightening: Johnson more-or-less admits that it'd be difficult to tell a North Korean story "straight:" not enough is known about the country, although he seems to have traveled to it, and the entire topic is too unbearably sad. If nothing else, "The Orphan Master's Son" is a harrowing description of how much pain and humiliation human beings can bear, and how difficult sadness and loss is to escape in a society as cruelly ruled and poorly administered as North Korea. This isn't one of those novels guaranteed to lift your spirits.

So instead of a straightforward narrative we get a kind of mix: reportage of state-sanctioned horrors -- both real and imagined -- episodes drawn from recent history, moments of low comedy, a healthy dose of surrealism, a commentary on what humans will do to slip through the cracks to survive, and a moments of pure melodrama, most of which have to do with love story of sorts between the book's two principals. As the book goes on, Johnson takes the liberty of mixing fact and fiction more freely: propaganda broadcasts bleed into the book's central narrative, elements that drawn from police procedurals filter into the book's structure. It's a cunning technique that makes up for the always-present questions about life in North Korea that will likely persist until the Kim regime finally falls. But the book's not just a pastiche, it's held to together, more or less, by two characters, Pak Jun Do and actress Sun Moon, whose character is ably split into both popular perceptions of the country's "national actress," the façade she maintains for others, and what private life she still might have. Johnson's novel is long, but doesn't outstay its welcome. Despite the unwieldy subject that the author has chosen, the book maintains its forward movement and a remarkable degree of coherence.

As well-drawn as some of these characters are, "The Orphan Master's Son" is, at base, a book about it's setting, and, as often happens with books and articles about North Korea, it's the details that tug at the heart most: he fact that North Koreans often hunt swallows to get more protein into their diet, that they collect chestnuts -- which Europeans used to rely on in times of famine -- from public parks. The fact that there's a whole class of orphans whose parents have either been killed or been sent to "re-education camps" and a whole register of names associated with them. It's hardship and sadness beyond most of our comprehensions. While not all of "The Orphan Master's Son" is factual, to portray life under these conditions with dexterity, sensitivity and even, upon occasion, humor, qualifies as an achievement of some sort.
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LibraryThing member Samchan
For most people who see North Korea as a mysterious black hole, I can understand how they would find this book refreshing and how they “learned” something from it. I am more familiar with NK defectors’ stories of survival than the average person, so this NK angle alone wasn’t an interesting enough novelty that could compensate for the story’s flaws. Johnson’s a good writer and I found the world that he creates convincing—no doubt informed totally by his interviews with NK defectors. The Orwellian world could be NK or any other despotic country or alternate universe, so even if it doesn’t accurately capture NK in some people’s opinions, that’s still okay. It’s the plotting that I had a problem with throughout my reading. Keep in mind that I had my own set of (high) expectations for this book, so my harsh judgment is no doubt influenced by that.

More thoughts:

--Gorgeous language—I went back and re-read a lot of passages in the first quarter.

--Once they got to Texas, things fell apart for me. The set up didn’t ring true anymore—the dialogue was cheesy and the symbolism obvious. Texas was also when he began to set up the main action with Commander Ga and that’s when I started to get bored with the book. I liked it better when it was about this one individual and his survival. This is personal preference. The “love” story was unconvincing and hackneyed and the thriller plot wasn’t very thrilling. And to have that boring plot told through 3 different POVs was unnecessary.

--Long-winded. I get that everything is supposed to be surreal and absurd—Orwellian, as other readers kept pointing out—but I can’t take surreal and absurd when it goes on and on and on and on and on. The author could have explored his themes of identity, myth-making, relationship between (and gaps in) truth and propaganda without having to drag it all out so much. I pretty much got bored once he got to the interrogation center and the point of view split into the nameless interrogator, the propaganda person, and Jun Do. There was no suspense, and I was looking forward to the end just to be put out of my agony and not because I was so excited to see what would happen. When I saw that I had the last 10 pages left to read, I felt like I was going to die from having to read them in order to finish. There was one sequence in which Sun Moon was playing her instrument the night before the great escape that especially drove me bananas.

--In the interview with the author, which is included at the end of the book, he says that he treated the novel as a “trauma narrative,” in which different types of stories—adventure, bildungsroman, farce, love story, etc.—“collided” together. This smorgasbord didn’t work for me.
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LibraryThing member Oregonreader
This is one of those stories that stays with you after you've finished reading it. It left me speechless, struggling to define my reactions to it. It is a powerful, disturbing and very satisfying book.
Set in North Korea, a place I know little about beyond what I've picked up in the news, Johnson does a good job of creating the day to day life there, a place where individuals exist only to support the collective whole, a society shaped by years of despotic rule by a psychopath. The first half of the book is narrated by Pak Jun Do, who grew up in an orphan's work house run by his father. Pak had control over where orphans were sent to work, knowing some factories were death sentences. This gave him an early education on how power worked there. As an adult, he worked as a kidnapper, snatching people from South Korea that Kim Jong Il has targeted, and later working on a ship listening to foreign broadcasts. He learns something of the outside world and begins to explore the idea of freedom. He starts on a path that is the center of the novel.
The second half of the book is narrated by 'the Biographer', a torturer who justifies his trade to himself by writing a biography of each of his victims. His story, and that of Pak, are intertwined and Johnson moves between their stories and back and forth in time with a clear hand.
The stories about Kim Jon Il are fantastic but based on true events. It is hard to believe one man could be responsible for so much suffering. The author does a good job of describing how societies can be made to do almost anything through fear and loss of control. I strongly suggest this as a must read.
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LibraryThing member ajarn7086
The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 so I expected it to be at least great. I was not disappointed. My reason for reading it was selfish; it is preparation reading for a writer-reader conference in Bali during the last week of October 2016. I will attend at least one meeting with an author who writes about North Korea and I would like to be informed with enough background information to ask questions. This book, although a work of fiction, presents some mind-boggling truths about the Hermit Kingdom. There is a reader’s guide at the end of the book as well as an interview with the author. Johnson informs the reader about his sources of information and inspiration. That is a good thing because from the beginning of the book information the reader receives defies belief.

Some readers may be aware of countries that broadcast information loudly and frequently throughout the day by means of public loudspeakers. The truth as the government sees it is impossible to avoid, paying attention is demanded of the citizenry and critical analysis or questioning of facts presented is strongly discouraged and may be life threatening. A visitor from a Western nation after being exposed to this system would never criticize elevator music again. In this novel, we look at North Korea. I have seen the same system in China, Cambodia, and Vietnam. North Koreas efforts as presented in this book are unique in the extremes reached that defy belief.

Immediately after the table of contents, before we are introduced to our hero and protagonist Jun Do, we get a chance to read one of these broadcasts. According to Johnson, many of these ridiculous claims typically broadcast as news were lifted from actual news articles published in a popular North Korean newspaper. A few examples:

(1) While the Dear Leader lectured to the dredge operators, many doves were seen to spontaneously flock above him, hovering to provide our Reverend General some much needed shade on a hot day. (p. 3)

(2) The shark has an ancient camaraderie with the Korean people. In the year 1592, did sharks not offer fish from their own mouths to help sustain Admiral Yi’s sailors during the siege of Okpo Harbor? Our national actress Sun Moon capsized in Inchon Bay while trying to prevent the American sneak attack (Korean War). It was a scary moment for all of us as the sharks began to circle her, helpless amid the waves. But did the sharks not recognize Sun Moon’s Korean modesty? Did they not smell the hot blood of her patriotism and lift her upon their fins to carry her safely to shore, where she could join the raging battle to repel the imperialist invaders? (p 5-6)

Our public information narrator in (1) above is referring to Kim Jong-il but the same could be (and probably is) said about the current leader, Kim Jong-un. In (2) above, reference is made to Sun Moon who will have an important part in this story as she is the love interest of Jun Do. She is possibly the love interest of the entire Korean male population much the same as American males were in love with Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, and on and on in the fantasy world. But Jun Do will never meet Sun Moon in his Jun Do persona. He will meet her as Commander Ga and how that comes about is as fascinating in its fictional creation as is the information we learn about North Korea.

Jun Do might be an orphan. We first meet him as a child in an orphanage. But Jun Do will never accept the label “orphan.” He presents his rationale of why he is not an orphan; the orphan master of the orphanage “Long Tomorrows” would never give him so much responsibility for and over other orphans if he were not, in fact, the son of the orphan master. But Jun Do also acknowledges that what is true in reality may conflict with the reality as prescribed by the government. And the Dear Leader, whether Kim il-Sung, Kim Jong-il, or Kim Jong-un is never wrong.

During a famine, labeled by the government as “The Arduous March”, the orphan master gave into the reality of no food and no way to survive other than distributing the orphans to other places, especially places with a government connection. Jun Do, at 14, went to the Army and became a tunnel rat. He learned skills enabling him to fight and survive in total darkness. He worked in tunnels that crossed borders where members of Jun Do’s team would surface to steal goods that could not be found in North Korea. Eight years later he was discovered by a man who would turn him into a kidnapper and a thief of other goods from Japan. During this job, he would learn seafaring skills. Jun Do also attracted the attention of intelligence officials. They noted that during his kidnapping adventures, he developed an interest in learning Japanese. Just as with the label “Orphan,” Jun Do refused to accept the label “Spy.” Again the government reality prevailed and while on a fishing boat Jun Do was tasked to listen for broadcasts from US and South Korean vessels. After an unfortunate incident with a US Navy ship and a South Korean officer, Jun Do was rewarded as a hero. As a form of reward, he was sent to the US as part of a diplomatic initiative.

Returning from the US, the team was deemed corrupted by western values. They had also failed to return with an item desired by the Dear Leader. The entire team was disciplined. Jun Do lost his hero status and was sent to the mines as punishment. Jun Do disappeared and was not heard from again.

Commander Ga was the Minister of Mines. He had to make frequent inspections of mines in a quest for certain rocks that made certain measuring meters click at a high rate of speed. The trips were lengthy and wife Sun Moon always expectantly awaited his return. Not with joy and love, but with fear, hate, and disgust. When he returned from his latest trip, she did not greet him with joy and love, but the fear, hate, and disgust were gone. It was as if he were a different man. And the love story begins. This is also where we meet our third narrator, an interrogator. A reader who also has familiarity with interrogation will discover a lot of points of comparison with western interrogation methods.

The improbability and coincidences in the fictional story are as amazing as the unreality that is depicted as North Korea. They are at the same level and are why the book works so well. There are many stories told that are woven together as skillfully as the quilt of the Senator’s wife (told during Jun Do’s visit to Texas).

This is a remarkable book told by an author with limited access to a closed society. There is a narcissistic cult leader, a totalitarian government, and a repressed people (physically) who have to deal with an inherent evolution (mentally). How they succeed and fail in their struggles invites our emotional attachment and reflection. This is a great book not to be read quickly.
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LibraryThing member mahsdad
This book won the Pulitzer in 2013, deservedly so. This is a fascinating story that provides the reader a glimpse into the bizarro world of North Korea.

I think the story epitomizes the phrase "perception IS reality". The first part tells of the life of Jun Do, who grows up in the orphanage that his father runs. Everyone thinks he's an orphan, because why else would you live in an orphanage, if you weren't. He goes on to become a kidnapper for the state, abducting foreign nationals (mostly Japanese) at the request of DPRK officials (doctors, artists, etc). He then becomes a signal operator on a fishing boat, listening to whatever transmissions from the West he can pickup. Among them, transmissions from the ISS, that he thinks are coming from the bottom of the sea (he can't fathom anything flying above the earth). The end of the first part has him being sent to a prison mine because a diplomatic trip to Texas didn't go exactly the way officials wanted.

In the second part, Jun do is no more, he has now taken on the identity of Commander Ga, a national hero, whom he has no resemblance with. But because perception is reality, he is accepted as such. Except by his (or rather Ga's) wife, who is Korea's moth famous film star and the ingenue, of the Dear Leader; Kim Jong-Il

This was a twisted and delightful read. It brought to mind shades of Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove, as well as a smattering of Walter Mitty. My favorite read so far this year.

Passages that stuck with me...

"The boys stopped at the harbor, it's dark waters ropey with corpses, thousands of them in the throes of the waves, looking like curds of sticky millet that start to flip and toss when the pan heats."

"How to tell the Second Mate that the only way to shake your ghosts, is to find them..."

"To survive in this world, you've got to be many times a coward buy at least once a hero... At least that's what a guy told me one time when I was beating shit out of him"


S: 5/7/16 - F: 5/22/16 ( 16 Days)
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LibraryThing member labfs39
It must be as difficult for a western author to write a novel set in North Korea, as it is for an ocean-dwelling creature to describe life above water. The differences between the two environments are so different, and, like the distortion created by the surface tension of water, the perspective is uncertain and misleading. Few authors attempt the feat, and those that do are hard pressed to avoid the stereotypes. Between research and guided tours to North Korea, Adam Johnson did due diligence in trying to write authentically, while at the same time creating a story that is compelling and a protagonist whose nature transcends the specifics of environment.

Pak Jun Do is named after a martyr to the revolution, all orphans are, and yet he doesn't consider himself an orphan. His father was the director of the orphanage and his mother was a singer who must be in Pyongyang even now, though he has never heard from her. Raised in brutal conditions, Jun Do spends his youth as many in his country do, as a faithful believer in the Dear Leader and the glorious purpose to which every life is dedicated. As a soldier, Jun Do learns to fight in preparation for the next American sneak attack, and when chosen for other violent work, he does so without question. But at several points in his life, Jun Do meets someone who represents an alternative mindset. A sea captain who cares for his young sailors more than for the state, or even himself. An old woman who remains true to her ideals and her teaching profession under the most inhumane of circumstances. People who allow him to see a different path for himself.

At first, I found myself constantly searching for the line between North Korean reality and the fictional plot. Do these things actually happen, or is it a plot device? But I remained engaged in the plot throughout, especially with the added complexity when, in the second half, the book shifts from straightforward narration to other perspectives on the plot: the first person narrative of an interrogator and a serialized story broadcast to the nation over loudspeakers. The book ends with a claustrophobic narrowing that intensifies both the inevitable ending and its attendant philosophical questions about heroism, loyalty, and love. For me, however, the story's real power lies with the protagonist and his gradual awakening to the nature of freedom. Although the setting is attention-getting, it became less import to me as a reader as I became more invested in the characters as they confront life's larger questions.
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LibraryThing member TheLostEntwife
Not since reading Wild Swans have I been as deeply affected as I was while reading The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson. The story of Pak Jun Do is a powerful, moving story and opened my eyes to so very much I did not know. I did not know much about North Korea, Kim Jong Il, or really anything that was happening until I got a taste of it in this novel and it's done what every good book strives to do - awakened my curiosity.

This is, in a way, a sort of traveling narrative-type of story. Through the course of the book we're introduced to various characters in Pak Jun Do's life - the Orphan Master (his father), the Captain, and so on and so forth. Each person has an impact on him, each one provides a valuable lesson, and each one gives us, the readers, an insight into a different aspect of life in North Korea.

This book is talked about. It's received a lot of hype, and that hype is deserved. Don't let it put you off from reading it. It's a thoroughly engrossing story that is not only beautifully written, but also very accessible to readers of all types.
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LibraryThing member msf59
“The most glorious nation in the world.”

Jun Do was born and raised in a North Korean orphan work camp, where his father was in command. We then follow this young man through a serpentine path, spiked with fear and danger. He is trained in the military, becomes a guard in the prison mines, then a government kidnapper. He learns English, so is placed on a fishing vessel, to listen to foreign radio transmissions and this leads to being an official translator.
And this is just the beginning of this tough, brilliantly plotted novel. It‘s a book about identity and false-fronts, where nothing is as it seems, where a government controls your every thought.
“The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you.”
In preparation to reading this, I read [Nothing to Envy] a couple months ago. An excellent nonfiction account and a perfect companion. Seek out both.
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LibraryThing member techeditor
This is a case of too much hype about THE ORPHAN MASTER'S SON, too much exclamation about how great it is, too much insistence that it will be the best book I ever read. I expected too much; therefore, I'm disappointed.

The book is about North Korea. It was difficult to read about such a hellish country and the sorry state of everyone in it. But it was also difficult to read such choppy writing. As a result, I thought throughout that I was missing something as I tried to get a handle on the orphan master's son, Pac Jun Do.

I know for sure that Pac Jun Do is a master liar. But I couldn't tell for a long time whether he was a good guy or a bad guy. Now I think that while he was younger and into adulthood he just went with the flow, accepting his lot and behaving as he was expected to. But he gradually came to think differently. Still it's choppy. So I'm not sure.

The story gets better when Jun Do is part of a delegation traveling to Texas. But the reason he goes with the North Korean officials is never clearly sated. He doesn't seem sure himself.

When he returns to North Korea, he comes home to the hideous. It gets worse. Frankly, it was so awful I could read only so much until I had to put the book down and take a break.

In my opinion, someone did some great marketing of this book and put out there some stupendous reader reviews that really sold the book to a lot of readers who believed them. In reality, it's difficult to follow. It is hard to tell if description is imagined or true. The writing is clumsy. First Jun Do is here, then he's there, then you can't tell where the heck he is. Too much is left unsaid, left to the reader's imagination. Yet torture scenes are described in awful detail.

I didn't like this book at all. If you still want to read it, borrow it from the library; don't buy it. That way, even though you'll waste time, you at least won't waste money.
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LibraryThing member jrosshbg
This book was challenging to read, but extremely fascinating. I did not know much about North Korea prior to reading the book. Johnson did a remarkable job bringing the reader into this world.
LibraryThing member cuicocha
I discovered that I could not keep reading this book without numerous breaks. While the concept of the story was unique, I found that I could not identify with any of the characters nor become involved with the story in any more than a superficial level.

I found the characterizations to be flat and listless... perhaps because of the society that they existed in. Based on the concept that everything in one's life is controlled by a "Supreme Leader", nothing that occurred in the story was surprising but rather, just depressing.

This book is "dark" and bleak and really provided few redeeming qualities for the time that I invested in reading it.
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LibraryThing member Limelite
Don't expect traditional novel form in this tour de force novel about what happens to people ground beneath the heel of an arbitrary tyrant. This is a novel too rich to digest casually. Reading it is hard work but well worth the effort. Johnson's epic brings to mind the style and gargantuan novelistic undertakings of Umberto Eco.

This is a novel divided into two parts. In the first, the orphan hero, Jun Do is a functioning cog in the brutal regime -- a puppet-master's son. He is an effective assassin who can kill in total darkness, an electronic eavesdropper for the State, and an English translator. It is in that latter capacity, in part two of the novel, after a pivotal journey as a member of a North Korean delegation to Texas, that "John Doe" transmogrifies into Commander Ga, administrator of prison mines, taking the corporeal place of the man who bore that name and living his life. Ironically, as he changes his name and acquires a fictional identity, Jun Do/Ga acquires true personhood and inviolable self-identity.

Johnson manipulates time, narrative style from the fictional portions to the propaganda portions, and reality until the reader's head spins trying to get its bearings and make sense of the orphan-master son's world. This disorientation to reason and reasonableness is purposeful. What better way can Johnson transmit to his readers the shattered mental condition that is suffered by North Koreans who try to cope with living within a regime that disappears elderly people by way of retirement; that enslaves its population, children and adults, then drains their blood after having drained their energy; that creates its own reality designed to shift on the whim of its cultist head of state; that produces so much uncertainty and so little food that people are starved emotionally and bodily?

By the end of the novel, in spite of the head-snapping roller coaster read, I came away believing that I probably made more sense of the book than a North Korean citizen can make sense of his daily life.

The Orphan Master's Son is a powerful novel making the argument against Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil" -- here is deliberate, imaginative, and unfathomable evil -- that is designed to make one's reading of it as close an experience to living it as can be achieved.
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LibraryThing member Schatje
This Pulitzer-Prize-winning dystopian political satire focuses on the absurdity of life in Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea. Jun Do (a Korean John Doe) begins life in an orphanage and at the dictates of the state becomes a soldier in the tunnels beneath the DMZ, a kidnapper of Japanese and South Korean citizens, a spy on a fishing boat monitoring and transcribing intercepted radio broadcasts, and a prisoner in a prison mine. Eventually he moves into the upper echelons of Pyongyang society by impersonating a military commander and there he meets Sun Moon, the Dear Leader’s favourite actress whom Jun Do falls in love.

A major theme is the importance of narrative in a totalitarian regime. Jun Do is told, “’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’” (121 – 122). In other words, only that which the state wants to be true is true. Several people refer to this fact of life. When the crew of a fishing trawler has its flag and portraits of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung confiscated by American sailors, the consequences for which could be imprisonment or death,
the captain asks Jun Do what they will tell the authorities: “’When they ask you what happened to our flag and portraits, what story are you going to tell them’” (63)? Later, to cover up a crew member’s defection, a farfetched story is concocted and Jun Do says, “’Sharks and guns and revenge . . . I know I thought it up, but this isn’t a story that anyone could really believe,’” but the captain says, “’You’re right . . . But it’s a story they can use’” (83). When the bizarre story is accepted by the Ministry of Information, Jun Do is astounded and blurts out, “’But the facts . . . They don’t add up.’” The state representative replies, “’There’s no such thing as facts. In my world, all the answers you need come from here.’ He pointed to himself . . .” (90). When a diplomatic mission does not go well, those involved “concoct a story to mitigate their failure” (162), a story that “’will speak to the Dear Leader [and] might save [their] lives’” (165). An interrogator for the state thinks of his job as learning a subject’s secrets and writing his/her biography: “When you have a subject’s biography, there is nothing between the citizen and the state. That’s harmony, that’s the idea our nation is founded upon” (181).

There is considerable humour in the book, much of it found in the sections where the words of the state’s propaganda machine are given over the loudspeakers located so everyone can hear. North Korean citizens are told that they live in “a land so pure it knows nothing of materialist greed” (343) ruled by a man who scored eleven holes-in-one in a golf game and whose very presence leaves people feeling all “earthly worries fall away” (224). The U.S. is portrayed as “a land where doctors chase pregnant women with ultrasounds . . . where huge populations . . . babble incoherently about God on the sweatpants-polished pews of megachurches” (351), a nation where “Lazy and unmotivated, Americans stay up late, engaging in television, homosexuality, and even religion, anything to fill their selfish appetites” (261). Humour also exists in the contrast between what actually happens and the state’s version of what happened where even birds do the bidding of the Great Leader.

Jun Do behaves consistently, is sufficiently motivated in his actions, and is largely plausible. The one difficulty is his command of the English language. He is sent to language school: “The school officials had no interest in teaching Jun Do to speak English. He simply had to transcribe it, learning vocabulary and grammar” (39). “He’d heard that the language school where they taught you to speak English was in Pyongyang and was filled with yangbans, kids of the elite” (42). He has to sound out “life raft” because “he’d barely spoken English before, it had never been part of his training” (59), yet he is soon talking with Americans with ease?

The author apparently did a great deal of research and was even able to visit the Hermit Kingdom, but it is difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction. (I would have appreciated a bibliography listing the materials which comprised his research.) The picture of life in North Korea, which Jun Do describes as “his small, backward homeland, a land of mysteries and ghosts and mistaken identities” (146), is surreal.
Unfortunately, the book may be more fact than fiction; certainly what little we know about the country suggests that the prevalent paranoia depicted in the novel is very real.
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LibraryThing member bodachliath
I have to be honest, I found this one a bit of a struggle, and I expected more from a Pulitzer prize winner.

Johnson's ambition in setting his novel in the closed and surreal world of North Korea is clear. For me this never quite succeeded in being more than a series of set pieces based on the snippets of truth that have emerged, acted out by ciphers who never quite become convincing characters. This may partially be excused as a reflection of the impossibility of maintaining humanity in such a place.

The political message seems simplistic and heavy handed. Some of the writing is good, and some of the set piece scenes are quite funny, but overall it is too much of a grim catalogue of inhumanity to be an enjoyable read.
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LibraryThing member eembooks
No doubt “The Orphan Master’s Son” was my reading challenge for 2012. The story follows Pak Jung Do (in America would be John Doe) growing up in terrible conditions as a probable orphan of North Korea. When the orphanage disintegrates he digs tunnels, kidnaps people from Japan, works as a translator and finally lands in the corrupt and ferocious prison system of North Korea.
In the second part of the novel he assumes the identity of Commander Ga so his wife will be the actress Sun Moon whom he knows because of one of the most creative circumstances I have encountered. From there the real or imagined defection occurs.
This book contains a combination of clever satire, irony in what seems to me to be magical realism. There are frequent narration and scene changes. Many characters have no names and known by what they do such as the second mate, captain, rower girl (though she is given a name at very end), children of Sun Moon; however, the dog interestingly has a name.
Overall I found Johnson’s style a dramatic and mesmerizing account to portray a country with chilling and stark conditions.
Note: Although not a soft summer read, would be an excellent book for a reading group with ambitious agendas. Did not work in the audio because of the numerous scene changes.
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LibraryThing member KatyBee
Set in North Korea during the rule of Kim Jong-il, this novel by Adam Johnson is crazy good. Johnson’s research including reading firsthand testimony from defectors and travel to North Korea. He wove this background material into a very dark but weirdly comic story. There’s some very serious writing about repression mixed in with some magic realism and even a love story. Unforgettable characters and superior writing - highly recommended for readers of Vonnegut and Orwell. Looking forward to reading more from this talented writer.… (more)
LibraryThing member renbedell
A historical fiction novel set in North Korea following the journey of a man as he makes his way through the military. It is a well-written story that gives a glimpse of what North Korea might have been like by following a person through a wide range of different events. The tone is very dry, which I liked as it fit the story well. The plot is light and constantly changes, with it being more focused about half-way through the book. The protagonist and all the supporting characters are great. This is definitely a book that makes you think.… (more)
LibraryThing member JBD1
Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son offers a timely peek behind the curtain at North Korean life and culture, as well as one of the most gripping plots I've read in a long time. I had a hard time getting anything done during the few days I was reading it, since i found my thoughts often straying back to the book, wondering how it was going to resolve itself. Based on the author's own travels into North Korea (and clearly extensive research as well) the novel tells the story of Pak Jun Do, the titular orphan master's son, as he makes his way through the brutal life of a North Korean citizen and tries to beat the odds and keep himself alive.

Seeing the world through the narrator's eyes is somewhat jarring, but it's also quite wonderful. When Pak Jun Do accompanies a delegation to Texas, his description of an outdoor barbeque is simply spot-on, and watching the "spin" that the North Korean government puts on things like famine, euthanasia, torture, and other heinous crimes is terrifying.

I won't give away much of the plot, whic gets nicely complicated in the second half of the book as Pak Jun Do takes on an entirely new role, and other perspectives are introduced into the narrative. Suffice it to say, I found it an excellent and powerful read, and recommend it very highly.
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LibraryThing member NHNick
I'm conflicted about this rating. This was a very dark book, with the horrific details of life as an orphan in North Korea. No, make that life as any citizen in North Korea. The ending, while expected, left me feeling very unsatisfied.
LibraryThing member blnq
A beautifully written and well researched novel set in the impossible virtual Kingdom of North Korea.

Easily the most frightening and intriguing country on the planet. The kind of place that makes you glad you live in Podunk, Kansas and thank god everyday that nothing ever happens in Podunk.

The book is as weird as the country must be with a convoluted and twisting plot but the characters are so vividly and beautifully drawn that the book just keeps calling you back for more.

The author spent many years researching and writing Orphan Master and it shows. Just a really thoughtful and yet compelling novel.
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LibraryThing member thrashbash
It’s not the man that matters; only his story does.

The title of this review is a rough quotation from the novel The Orphan Master’s Son. And as it turns out, in the North Korea Adam Johnson presents, this is the sad truth.

The novel follows a few years and some of the most traumatic experiences in a young man’s life-- who is arguably nameless. At first, he goes by Jun Do, the orphan master’s son; through this character we become acquainted with his mommy, daddy, family, and trust issues-- torments all brought upon him by the harsh realities of the State in which he lives. For example, he is haunted by the memories of the orphans he was forced to grow up with, and the memories of each of their terrible ends, (orphans are an abused and unwanted lot in Johnson’s North Korea). To reveal the exact path on which readers are lead in following the orphan master’s son’s progress would be to spoil the magic and style of Johnson’s storytelling.

Which leads to one of the novel’s-- or, rather, the author’s-- strong points: its prose. Such lovely analogies and patterns of words existing in a novel of horrors is really something to take note of. And it really serves to accentuate the fact that it is in fact horrors that are being described. Another particularly crafty trait of Johnson’s writing is the way in which he enumerates iniquities and offenses against his characters with nonchalance, slipping them in out of nowhere to take the reader totally off guard. It gives one a sort of sense of Johnson’s North Koreans’ overall capitulation to the injustices of their lives.

I know this novel will be described as drama or as a thriller; it’s true that the story has those elements. But I hope people recognize its literary value as well. Most notable, in my opinion, of meditations in this novel is the one on narration-- on storytelling as an act of creating reality; storytelling as an act of changing the truth; and storytelling to save oneself.

North Korea is regarded by the United States as a sort ‘black hole’ of intelligence; I suppose this is why I had no idea of what has gone on in this country for the past century or so. Adam Johnson’s novel is not nonfiction-- but he has stated in his interviews that it is based heavily on research he conducted. Given the research I’ve been compelled to do on my own since finishing his novel, I tend to believe that much of it is not at all far from the truth. I had no opinion of North Korea before reading this; I finished reading it on the day Kim Jong Il’s death was announced, and my feelings were overwhelming.
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LibraryThing member mamajoan
I'm not even sure what to say about this book. To say that it's unlike anything I've read before would be trite, but it's true. This is a really fascinating story and an amazing look into a culture that most of us Americans know nothing about: the culture of North Korea. According to the author interview at the end, Adam Johnson spent many months researching North Korea for the book, so one must assume that his depictions of that country are largely accurate. It's a place so different from what we're used to that it might as well be science fiction.

In North Korea, no one feels free to express their true opinions or feelings, so everything that everyone says is shrouded in layers of obfuscation. This makes for a story full of subtlety and nuance, leaving you guessing until the end. There are a few plot points I'm still shaking my head over, thinking, did that really mean what I think it meant? Adam Johnson has done an excellent job of constructing this narrative, using different voices to enhance the feeling of unreality, of not knowing which version of the story I should trust.

I really enjoyed reading this book and know that it's definitely one of those stories that will stick with you for a while. The characters are so vivid in my mind that I still find myself thinking about them, wondering what really became of them and what they really meant when they said x or did y.
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LibraryThing member suetu
The first great novel of 2012

I read a lot. I read a diverse cross-section of fiction. And I am telling you that I have never read anything like Adam Johnson’s novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. And I’ll cut to the chase here and tell you that it knocked my socks right off!

The novel is the story of Pak Jun Do, the eponymous orphan master’s son. Jun Do spends the novel explaining to people that despite his orphan’s name and upbringing in an orphanage, that he is not an orphan. Although he is not parented well, or for long. “All orphans are destined for the Army eventually. But this was how Jun Do, at fourteen, became a tunnel soldier, trained in the art of zero-light combat.

This is merely the first chapter of Jun Do’s absolutely extraordinary life. He’s a tremendously appealing character, who struggles to overcome the many challenges of his life with integrity and without complaint. He literally doesn’t know there is an alternative to the harsh life he has experienced in North Korea.

So, the novel revolves around a terrific central character, and the author has given him an epic and eventful story, but truthfully it’s the North Korean setting that makes this story so compelling. The novel opens with the first of many propaganda bursts played from ubiquitous loudspeakers. What it broadcasts is insane!

“In local news, Our Dear Leader Kim Jong Il was seen offering on-the-spot guidance to the engineers deepening the Taedong River channel. While the Dear Leader lectured to the dredge operators, many doves were seen to spontaneously flock above him, hovering to provide our Reverend General some much needed shade on a hot day.”

That is just the very tip of the iceberg. Life in North Korea is like nothing I could imagine in my wildest dreams. Well, nightmares. Author Johnson spent years researching the peninsula, and actually had the rare opportunity to visit the country while writing this novel. It is fascinating in a truly horrifying way. I will never listen to news out of North Korea the same way again.

I could write more about Jun Do’s picaresque story, but the joy here is in watching it unfold. The Orphan Master’s Son has been described as a literary novel, a romance, and a thriller. It is all of those things and more. Beneath the surface of the story, there is commentary not only on life in this oppressive realm, but in our own. And it’s actually about the role that the stories we tell has on the direction of our lives. It has humor, emotion, heart, and a hero you’ll root for. This is a powerful novel and simply fantastic storytelling. I highly recommend it for pretty much everyone. This early in the year, I may just have read one of 2012’s best books.
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