The Orphan Master's Son is Jun Do, an orphan who creates a family story starring the cruel head of his orphanage, Long Tomorrows, and the beautiful singer whose picture is pinned on the wall. Jun Do has no intention of accepting his fate as an orphan: orphanhood is a pretty bleak prospect in impoverished and oppressive North Korea.
By adopting the Orphan Master and his faithless lover as parents, Jun Do convinces himself that he won't share the fate of the other orphans. Even though the Orphan Master clearly has no love him, Jun Do senses that he will need something to distinguish himself in order to survive in his society. So when he is pressed into military service at a young age and given truly rotten assignments—just like all other orphans who survive past childhood—his continued denial of his true identity insulates him from the soul-crushing reality that no one cares about him.
There's also a subtle reference to the other Orphan Master in the book—Kim Jong Il. We're told a tale about an orphan and a bear that adopts him and feeds him honey from his claws. It's an animal allegory, one in which the Dear Leader (the bear) cares for all the fatherless in North Korea. If Jun Do fills the role of the orphan in this story, the conflict between the two is more than just the conflict between dictator and oppressed citizen: it's a family feud. And Big Daddy has no problem crushing his upstart son.
What does it mean that the state gets the last word on Impostor Ga/Jun Do's death? Does it matter? After all, we already know the truth and can call the state out as a liar. Is it depressing? After all, the voice blaring from the loudspeaker has once again co-opted the truth, forcing more communist rhetoric on the citizens of North Korea. There's a sense in which the lies put out by North Korean propaganda decimate everything—including a story and a character we've become attached to.
There are also questions about the state's interpretation of Commander Ga's incredibly macho death scene. Is there truth hidden between the lines of this fantastical narrative? We are told to picture Ga "in a perfect light, glowing like an icy mountain flower"—a reference to the blossoming flower seen by torture victims at the pinnacle of their distress (441). This is perhaps the glorified retelling of Ga's death by torture device.
The voice on the loudspeaker also says that Ga has been "handed" from "one Glorious Leader... to the next," essentially meaning that Kim Jong Il has handed him to his father, Kim Il Sung, in heaven. It sounds like a flowery way to say that the Dear Leader had a very direct hand in creating this new martyr-hero.
The irony of the ending is that our hero—who fought to keep his individuality from being taken by the state—is now enshrined in the Revolutionary Martyrs' Cemetery, all set to become a new name choice for another generation of orphans—as well a profitable source of propaganda for the Dear Leader.
The Orphan Master's Son focuses on Kim Jong Il's North Korea, a place equal to the finest sci-fi dystopias. It's a society that promotes a Stalinist interpretation of communism, an interpretation that breeds all kinds of corruption and social ills. The filth, poverty, and hunger that haunt Jun Do's world create the despair and desperation that motivate the behaviors of most of the characters, including Jun Do, who will comply with almost anything to survive.
While Pyongyang seems like a glittering jewel of a city to those who live in the more impoverished provinces, there is an underlying grubbiness and desperation even in the capital itself. The glamor of showplaces like the zoo and the Martyrs' Cemetery are undercut by the presence of starving families who scavenge for anything edible, and even the largest and most sophisticated government buildings use outdated technologies and suffer from daily power outages.
North Korea is also a place of thriving black markets, abandoned factories, and "ghost houses" that once gave shelter to families destroyed by the misery of life in a totalitarian state. There are gulags that take up large amounts of land and imprison generations of families, sometimes just because an ancestor committed a petty crime—or maybe none at all.
This country is the playground of the Dear Leader, who creates what looks like a supervillain's secret lair under the streets of Pyongyang. He travels through the famine-stricken countryside in his luxury train, oblivious to the suffering of his own people traveling just one track away in dilapidated cattle cars.
There's a kind of weird, crazy hilarity to this place, where, for example, the fear of hunger compels citizens to pasture goats on rooftops in the Big City, who just might rain down on your car if they accidentally step over the edge of the building. Yet despite the Dear Leader's zaniness, and despite Adam Johnson's delightful black humor, we aren't allowed to forget that this is a world built by conspiracy theories, delusions of grandeur, and a terrible, deep-seated poverty that destroys both body and spirit.
Aside from the switch-up in the narrative at the opening of Part Two, Johnson's writing is not all that hard to understand. He's often darkly humorous, and the storyline is compelling. We're giving this one a high rating, though, because of the emotional toll it will take on you. As NPR interviewer Rachel Martin confessed to Johnson, "...when I was first handed this book, I thought, I don't know if I want to live in this world."
It's definitely tough to put yourself voluntarily in the grim world of North Korea, but this amazing story—combined with Johnson's beautiful writing—will more than compensate for the guaranteed emotional scarring.
It may be weird to think about it, but the Interrogator elevates his discussion about torture to a level of elegance and conceptual beauty. He speaks of it as cathartic, as a way of exchanging one identity for another in a few easy steps. When Commander Ga mentions his friendship with Mongnan in Prison 33, for example, her name gives the Interrogator the chance to tell us about the ultimate torture experience:
... the name Mongnan meant 'Magnolia,' the grandest white flower of them all. That's what our subjects say they see when the autopilot takes them to the apex of pain—a wintry mountaintop, where from the frost a lone white blossom opens for them. (197)
The white blossom offers the Interrogator a symbol of beauty to mask the ugliness of his work, suggesting that something spiritual and utterly benign can be reached through the misery of suffering. The whiteness—which suggests innocence and purity—and the beauty of the flower make such suffering seem both noble and desirable.
On the other hand, the imagery of flowering, of blossoming after physical suffering, leads the Interrogator to speak uncomfortably about the connection to sexual pleasure felt by some of his "subjects" in the chair. Anything to transform the truth about suffering into something desirable sounds good to the Interrogator.
We see this image working overtime in the last moments of the book, when the voice on the loudspeaker urges us not to dwell on the horrendous manner of Ga's death: "Do not imagine Ga falling forever, citizens. Picture Ga in a cloud of white. See him in a perfect light, glowing like an icy mountain flower. Yes, picture a flower towering in white, so tall that it reaches down to pick you" (442).
In this case, the white flower has to be as oversized as the story of Ga's macho death scene in order to keep the audience from thinking too hard about either the plausibility of such actions or the terror that any person would have felt in Ga's position—if there were any truth in the account in the first place.
The Interrogator has great admiration for his new-fangled torture machine, the "autopilot," because of its seemingly civilized method of destroying someone.
They said that about the guillotine, too, folks.
There's no visible brutality involved with the autopilot, which is something that appeals to the squeamish Interrogator very much. And yet the electrical impulses are thorough and irreversible. The Interrogator describes the process of removing a personality with the metaphor of a pencil (the creative scribblings of an individual mind) and an eraser (the electrical impulses invading the brain):
They continue lockstep in this way, the self and the state, coming closer to one another until finally the pencil and the eraser are almost one, moving in sympathy, the line disappearing even as it's laid down, the words unwritten before the letters are formed, and finally there is only white. (317)
For the Interrogator, there is beauty in the chase. While the personality struggles to maintain itself, the impulses of the autopilot configure themselves to seek and destroy. It's so customizable. So neatly done. The image of the eraser, which chilling once we realize what it's doing, is still sort of appealing: it creates a clean workspace, a blank slate on which a new text can be written.
The Interrogator clearly wants us to see only what is admirable and lovely in the process—hence the metaphor. In this work, figurative language is generally used to cover unpleasant realities (think of the "white flower"), so it isn't surprising to see the Interrogator manipulating that kind of language so well here. He sees the self/state, pencil/eraser combos not as opposites but more as whole entities: the individual, in his mind, should be allowed to exist outside of the state.
By forcing individuals to submit the domination of the state, the Interrogator's actually creating an army of people just like him: nameless, with no personal story, and with very little desire to challenge the official narrative.
We learn that Jun Do has had some interesting professional training in his life, including "pain training." While Johnson never gives us the entire backstory on why Jun Do received such torture management training, we do get Jun Do's memory of his "pain mentor," Kimsan, and Kimsan's technique:
"There was the flame, small and hot at its tip. There was the glow, warm on their faces. Then there was the darkness beyond the glow. Never let pain push you into the darkness, Kimsan said. There you are nobody and you are alone. Once you turn from the flame, it is over." (86)
Kimsan presents the flame to Jun Do as something inherently good and bad, a source light and warmth but also something that can sear and destroy. The focus of Jun Do's training is on partitioning—the ability to cordon off the pain (the part immersed in flame) and live in the life-giving warmth from the more benign glow of the candle.
Kimsan recommends careful control over the pain response so that only the beneficial aspects of fire are experienced: "In the candle's flame, the fingertip hurts, though the whole rest of the body is in the warm glow of its light. Keep the pain in the fingertip and your body in the glow" (86).
The dangerous flame is not only representative of pain that can be inflicted on Jun Do; it's also a way of acknowledging his own force, the potential that he has to damage others. While he is being beaten, Jun Do notices that every punch is also causing pain to his torturer. He recalls Kimsan's words and understands that the relationship between flame and person is always relative: "You are the flame, Kimsan said. The old man keeps touching the hot flame of you with only his hands...and look how it burns him" (87).
It's a useful image for Jun Do, but it only goes so far. There are things about the flame and the glow that Kimsan never taught him—like what to do when the pain is gone (89). When the torturer stops playing games with Jun Do, he has to face the present situation without any techniques to guide him. In essence, he has to face reality. When that happens, he finds that he can't untangle truth from fiction and that everything about the Second Mate—the truth and the fiction—has wounded and confused him, leaving him in darkness.
Then there is the strange experience of living in the glow, those moments when pain is furthest from Jun Do's mind. But pleasure and intimacy are strange animals for him, and he finds that all the official training in the world can't prepare him for them. The image of the glowing flame returns as he spends a last night together with Sun Moon and her family, singing:
The boy's voice was clear and trusting, the girl's was graveled with growing awareness. Combined with Sun Moon's longing, a harmony arose that was nourishing to Ga. No other family in the world could create such a sound and here he was, in the glow of it. (417)
The orphan Jun Do finally understands what it is to live in the warmth of family. It's this glow that he carries with him when he's subjected to his final trials at the hands of the Pubyok and the Interrogator.