Study Guide

Li Mongnan in The Orphan Master's Son

By Adam Johnson

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Li Mongnan

Dirty Job

Mongnan is an old woman working the least desirable job on earth: she takes photographs of prisoners when they enter the camp and again when they die. She bears witness to the inhumanity of the blood-collectors, and she watches as the prisoners, many (most?) of them innocent, suffer ultimate misery in a place devoid of food, medicine, or any version of comfort.

But for all that, Mongnan is not a complainer. She exhibits a startling adaptability that is almost too much for Jun Do to bear when he enters the prison camp. When Mongnan offers him furtive advice on what to harvest from the dying patients in the infirmary, Jun Do can hardly imagine himself following it. He's especially hesitant when he has to reach into a pair of used boots to retrieve the last owner's gangrenous bits of broken-off toe.

Mongnan's position at the prison camp is a little like the Interrogator's back in Pyongyang: she documents the stories of each prisoner, so that even when these people are lost, there is a record of who they had been. In a strange way, it's almost an act of mercy. We can't even imagine why such a job would even exist under the Kim regime, but Mongnan is meticulous in her dirty work.

A Different Kind of Mother

If the Captain is Jun Do's adopted father, then Mongnan is certainly the closest thing he gets to a mother. She makes sure that Jun Do survives that first year in the camp, imparting some of the most disgusting skills she's acquired, including eating dead moths and retrieving ox semen as sources of protein (200).

When Jun Do asks her why she's helping him, Mongnan is mighty cagey: she tells him about the upcoming visit of Commander Ga. But that doesn't answer Jun Do's question. He presses, and what he gets is pure Mongnan: "And the answer to your question is this: why I'm helping you is none of your business" (200). She claims the privilege of being an old lady (apparently, they help people), but she never offers a further explanation.

It doesn't really matter. What does change things for Jun Do—and for us as interpreters of his character—is that Mongnan is able to break through the pathetic storyline he'd been trying to create for himself his entire life. After the death of the Captain, Mongnan suddenly understands Jun Do's pain:

He couldn't get a hold of his breathing, and she pulled him close, like a child. "There," she said, rocking him. "There's my little orphan, my poor little orphan."

Meekly, through tears, he said, "I'm not an orphan."

"Of course you are," she said. "I'm Mongnan, I know an orphan, of course you are." (298)

And that's it, right there: all Jun Do's years of denial crushed in one sentence. But who is this Mongnan, anyway?

"The Grandest White Flower of Them All"

Mongnan is a hard character to pin down. We might accept that she's just an old lady who wants to help a young man survive. But there's something not quite right about the way she talks. For instance, when she's having a midnight snack with Jun Do, she says this:

Ah, the joys of a scarcity distribution, Mongnan said and finished the radish—root, stem, and blossom. This place is a lecture on supply and demand. Here is my blackboard, she said, looking to the night sky. Then she put a hand on the electric fence. And here is my final exam. (198)

What the heck? Suddenly, Mongnan has taken on an identity outside the prison camp, offering a reference to what she once was in the days before she made it to the miserable infirmary. Q-Kee, our psychopathic interrogator-in-training, offers Impostor Ga the only insight he'll ever get about her identity: "Is this Li Mongnan, the professor who was denounced, along with her students?" (198).

It's ironic that we should learn much at all about Mongnan from the interrogators, who are notorious for gathering information but not really sharing it. The Interrogator himself doesn't seem to make the connection between Mongnan's name and her former life, but he does make another connection. In the closed system of his mind, he understands that:

... 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)

We never learn more about her life at university (we imagine, from her language, that she was a professor of economics), or anything further about her fate, except that she eventually dies. But perhaps the Interrogator's connection of Mongnan with the beauty he expects to find at the far shore of pain is the best description of her role in Jun Do's life, too. She's a catalyst for positive change and personal development.

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