Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Transformation

By Adam Johnson

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Part 1, Pages 7-20

It only took a couple of minutes—first they got sleepy, then a little dreamy looking, and if there was a last little panic at the end, it didn't matter because they couldn't talk anymore, and finally, before lights out, they looked pleasantly confused, like a cricket with its feelers pulled off. (16)

Jun Do thinks about how the 16-year-old in the infirmary at the military base will die when they drain his blood from him. It's a horrifying practice, but for those who expect to suffer worse fates at the hands of the state, this sounds like a pretty nice way to go. Like the experience with the autopilot, this method of handling citizens is meant to take away the fight and erase identity. Jun Do later reflects that placing the young boy's blood into the ice was the real killing of him, since that was when the life force that made him unique was finally quelled.

Part 1, Pages 75-90

... when that was all blocked off, there was only the inside of him, and what he discovered was a little boy in there who was stupidly smiling, who had no idea what was happening to the man outside. And suddenly, the story was true, it had been beaten into him, and he began crying because the Second Mate had died and there was nothing he could do about it. (88)

Jun Do's pain training pays off during his first torture session. He's able to leave his physical body to take the punches while he retreats into himself for self-preservation. The process involves a change in perception for him, and not only of himself. He learns that there is a place inside him where lies become dramatic reality. He learns that he can convince himself of anything, and other people will go right along with him.

Part 1, Pages 105-123

"Where we are from," [Dr. Song] 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 man. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change." (121-122).

Dr. Song approaches the subject of propaganda with an openness that is surprising. It's clear that survival in North Korea depends on adaptability—or the ability to abandon the self at the drop of a hat.

Part 1, Pages 156-175

Mongnan pressed a button and when the flash went off, everything seemed different. He was on the other side of the bright light now, and that's where all the bloodless people on the cots were—on the other side of her flash. (174)

Mongnan's intake process for the unfortunate prisoners of Prison 33 reminds us of cultures in which photography is taboo because there is a fear that it will take your personal identity and not just your image. This is the moment when Jun Do as we've known him ceases to exist. Once he becomes part of Mongnan's files, he's part of the nameless and forgotten prisoners who will spend their last moments bleeding into a blood collection bag.

Part 2, Pages 179-193

Pain of this nature creates a rift in the identity—the person who makes it to the far shore will have little resemblance to the professor who now begins the crossing... There's no way around it: to get a new life, you've got to trade in your old one. (181)

The Interrogator speaks rather coolly about the efficacy of torture with the autopilot. He speaks of it with admiration, as though the total erasure of a personality is a desirable thing. In his idealized world, it is. Undergoing such a change is like re-upping your passport with a new and better photo. In the Interrogator's mind, the subject can then move on to a productive life on a commune or other work detail. He will discover that the reality is quite different.

Part 2, Pages 194-208

He dipped his paw in honey and brought his claws to my lips. Then the bear said, "You will learn to speak bear now, and you will become as the bear and you will be safe." (207)

In this uniquely North Korean fable, the bear symbolizes the Dear Leader, figured as the caring father of all orphans. Though the allegory is meant to be comforting, there's a level of creepiness in there, as well: the child will have to lose his own identity to conform to the life of the bear. His only alternative, as the rest of the story goes, is death.

"I made it through winter, but afterward I was different. I can't make you understand what the winter was like, what that did to me. When the thaw came, I didn't care about anything." (196)

Jun Do/Imposter Ga tries to explain what happened to him in the space between entering Prison 33 as Jun Do and leaving it as Ga. Exposure to harsh winter elements has the same transformative powers as a torture session—he's pretty sure he doesn't want to live through another one. His reckless new attitude signals that he's getting ready to throw in the towel.

"When you're out of sight of shore," he said, "you could be anybody from anywhere. It's like you have no past. Out there, everything is spontaneous, every lick of water that kicks up, every bird that drops in from nowhere. Over the airwaves, people say things you'd never imagine." (108)

Jun Do speaks of the freeing nature of the ocean: the general lack of borders and oversight give him a sense of what it might be like to live a different life. He acknowledges that a lack of borders changes people and helps them to lose their inhibitions—or perhaps fear of prohibitions. It's the spontaneity factor that really hooks Jun Do. There's no inevitability when things can change on the spur of the moment.

"If the Americans use their senses and keep their heads level," Dr. Song said, "then no tiger story will fool them. They will taste that this is cow. But if the Americans are just toying with us, if they don't plan on seeking the facts and negotiating seriously, then they will taste tiger." (123)

Ironically, Dr. Song has already interpreted the tiger meat in more than one way. On the one hand, receiving the meat of an endangered species will make the Americans feel like they have the moral high ground. On the other, it will force the Americans to make a decision: will they be diplomatic, or will they call the North Koreans' bluff? We can't help thinking of Frank Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger." We're betting Johnson was thinking of it, too, when he thought this up.

"He didn't kill Sun Moon and her children. Ga turned them into little birds and taught them a sad song. Then they flew away toward sunset, to a place where you'll never find them." (239)

Comrade Buc tells the Interrogator and his crew what actually happened to Sun Moon in barely allegorical terms, but they still fail to understand what he's on about. The idea of defection is so far out of their vocabulary that they simply don't get it. Sun Moon and her children are not the only ones to undergo significant change in this story line: Comrade Buc has lost everything that matters and is now wallowing on the floor of the "sump" in Division 42.

"You're one of us now," he said. "You're an intern no more. You no longer have use for a name,' he added as he pulled hard on her fingers, snapping the cracked bones straight for a proper heal." (364)

Q-Kee has paid a terrible price for her "graduation" from intern to full-fledged Pubyok: she's personally killed her colleague Jujack because he withheld information from them. The traditional breaking of the hand against the doorjamb is meant to toughen the hand itself, but it's also clearly a chance for Q-Kee to release herself from the horror of her actions. Her willingness to murder in cold blood transforms Q-Kee into a minion of the state who no longer needs a personal identity.

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