2012-The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson ($15)

A place NOT on my travel bucket list? North Korea. Especially after reading this book. Fiction is not stranger than fact, although Johnson certainly depicts North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in an unflattering light, wearing the quirks and eccentricities of a leader with unlimited power. Johnson, in an interview with author Richard Powers added to the end of the paperback edition of his book, said that if he had written about some of the odd things Kim had done for real, it would have made his book into a comic parody.

Pak Jun Do (not his real name) dominates the first half of the book. Commander Ga (not his real name either) tells his story in the second half. Pak, as the son of the head of an orphanage, becomes not much better than an orphan himself. As a boy he was responsible for naming the orphans after North Korean martyrs before sending them off to miserable fates. He, too, adopted the name of a martyr, Pak Jun Do.

While he grew up with his real father in the orphanage, he was often mistaken for an orphan. Pak's denials become more rote and meaningless, as people throughout his life continue to mistake him for one. His mother, he remembers -- or is it fantasy? -- was an opera singer. Eventually, his real early life fades into the background as he's forced to end one life to create another identity. The backdrop for Pak's story is the North Korean Communist state and its "Big Brother" mentality. In his desire and search for identity, he is forever at the mercy of the state.

We follow Pak's life as a kidnapper, language school student, spy on a fishing ship, and prisoner in a North Korean gulag, all of which highlights Johnson's thesis about the arbitrary fate of a North Korean citizen. Most of it is spent avoiding notice. Once having attracted notice, however, the capricious nature of the state can elevate, honor, and award a citizen or throw him into a hellhole without mercy or reason. Pak finds himself on such an up-and-down journey.

In an interlude worthy of the best comically improbable situations of Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard, Pak and some newly minted acquaintances journey as representatives of North Korean to Texas. From barbeque to dogs-as-pets, it's America through the eyes of a travel virgin, and it's touching and bizarre. To honor Johnson's intentions, I must add that it's obvious this is just a small part of the tender and terrifying story that is Pak's journey.

The second part of the book tells the tale of Commander Ga, war hero, tae kwon do champion, and Director of the Prison Mines. Is it really Commander Ga or Pak in another incarnation? Ga's wife, Sun Moon, is a famous actress and the pet of "The Great Leader," Kim Jong Il. In the first part of the book, the genesis of Pak's fascination with Sun Moon is described when the captain of the fishing ship crudely tattoos her portrait on Pak's chest. Eventually, Pak laments that the only image he can see is a reverse image in the mirror; he can never see the true Sun Moon. The thought of her soothes him through onerous times. But if Pak has mysteriously become Commander Ga, is he now a tool of the state or has something extraordinary happened to him? In slowly uncovered stages, Johnson reveals the metamorphosis. The answer is not supernatural, but Johnson's narrative has a fantastical touch to it.

Although the story bounces around among the first-person narratives of Pak, Ga, and an anonymous police interrogator, and state-scripted declamations blasted from speakers to the North Koreans, the story is cohesive. This is a thoughtful, illuminating, imaginative work.

The orphan master's son may not have his own name, but in the end he has an identity.

-- Barbara