The Orphan Master’s Son

The Orphan Master's Son

My husband says, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

It goes some way to explaining why I spent the first six months of our relationship stopping him mid-tale, agape.

“Wait,” I’d say. “You went all that way in TWO HOURS? TWO HOURS?”

“Yes,” he’d say.

“That’s almost unbelievable. That’s incredible. TWO HOURS – I’ve never heard anything like it.”

“Anyway, it took me two hours, and…”

Eventually we’d continue with the story, only for me to stop dead at the next astonishing point. It took me months to learn that dramatic exaggeration was simply parr for the course, and to be factored into any surprising figure quoted. It makes for a more colourful life.

All so enjoyable, when nothing rides on it and you cling determinedly to a realistic notion in your head (an automatic discount or increase of 50%, context dependent, works for me). But not so fun when truth – and identity – are out of your hands.

Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son is a novel set behind the shadowy veil of North Korea. It is a place where identity and truth are changeable concepts in the power of other people. Simply put, you are who the authorities say you are. The names of many of the characters allude to this – the protagonist is Jun Do, homonym for John Doe, and the others have nicknames, names changed by other people, or names based on questionable national myth. This quote sums it up:

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.”

The novel follows the course of a man who lives the truth behind the rhetoric – the reinterpretation and perversion of life to fit the triumphant nationalist discourse. He even becomes a hero after being attacked by a shark (real) he is thrown to by Americans (false.) And yet this heroism does nothing to protect him, and he goes on to claim the identity of another man that he kills. Due to the strange workings of the state, he is accepted by the authorities as this new identity although they know full well that he isn’t. Even the man’s wife has to accept him as the man he killed. The unique mix of acceptance, fear and pragmatic understanding of what’s really going on is fascinating and like nothing else I’ve seen explored in a novel.

All of this truth-twisting means the storyline is a touch wild, but in a world of such shifting boundaries and shocking extremes Johnson gets away with it. As he has said in interview, the exaggeration is that one person has access to so many different lives rather than the facts themselves.

The narrative is interspersed with sections of the state broadcasts which are piped into every home daily. The hyperbole and and wild-eyed statements form an effective dramatic contrast to the desperation of the lives of everyday people. Somehow the more marked the contrasts and the more outrageous the lies, the more realistic it feels. Ironically, the brief section set in America (Johnson’s homeland) is the least effective.

It takes a while to get used to. The first half is somewhat disjointed and leaves the reader struggling to see what Johnson is getting at – is it a twisted adventure story? It’s in the second half that it gets into its stride. Even as it gets more violent and bizarre, it works better – the complex effects of the regime on the characters’ psyches is explored more meaningfully.

There’s definite embellishment of the truth throughout the novel, and you’re left not knowing which shocking facts are real and which are invented (though Johnson swears that he only invents for good reason, and that the truth is often worse.) But, truth or fiction – it sure makes for a good story.

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