Study Guide

The Orphan Master's Son Versions of Reality

By Adam Johnson

Versions of Reality

Part 1, Pages 7-20

The key to fighting in the dark was no different: you had to perceive your opponent, sense him, and never use your imagination. The darkness inside your head is something your imagination fills with stories that have nothing to do with the real darkness around you. (15)

Jun Do's entire existence is based entirely on storytelling ("I'm not an orphan, I'm not an orphan"), so it's interesting that he feels this strongly about dealing with reality in the darkness. There's something way more dangerous about making stuff up in the dark—it distracts you from the probability that something very nasty is right around the corner waiting to take you out. In the daylight world, however, Jun Do's take on things is quite different: the metaphorical darkness enveloping his life in North Korea is too hard to look at straight on.

It was dangerous to dream up people like that. If you did, they'd soon be in the tunnel with you. That happened many times when he remembered boys from Long Tomorrows. One slip and a boy was suddenly following you in the dark. He was saying things to you, asking you why you weren't the one who succumbed to the cold, why you weren't the one who fell in the paint vat... (18)

Jun Do survives the horror of his situation in life by staying focused on the task before him—in this case, navigating the darkness of the tunnels—and not allowing his mind and conscience to wander back over his past unsavory deeds. In doing so, he's treading a fine line between creating a new (but selective) narrative for himself and acknowledging the truth of a miserably painful past. This "tunnel vision"—pun totally intended—keeps Jun Do from being emotionally paralyzed by the necessary moral depravity that marks his early life.

Part 1, Pages 34-62

She'd had a vision that humans would one day return to the oceans, growing flippers and blowholes, that humanity would become one again in the oceans, and there'd be no intolerance or war. (54)

The American rower (night shift) is really starting to go off the deep end as she moves through the dark waters. Jun Do hears her alternative version of the future and realizes that she's been closing her eyes to the darkness, letting her imagination run wild rather than grappling with the landscape around her. As he theorizes earlier, her inability to fully engage with the present task has allowed her mind to give life to all kinds of irrelevant and dangerous weirdness.

Part 1, Pages 75-90

The Second Mate reached up and untied the rope himself. He pushed off. Floating free, he said, "We're the ones at the bottom of the ocean. You helped me see that." (80)

The Second Mate has decided to defect because his exposure to the concept of the International Space Station (a project based on peace and brotherhood) undermines his perception of a hostile and depraved world bent on the destruction of North Korea. The propaganda of his homeland doesn't cut it anymore, and he certainly can't bear to suffer for an ideology that has no basis in reality.

Part 2, Pages 194-208

"Duc Dan's retired," he said. "You all went to his going-away party. He moved to the beach in Wonsan. He's not in jail, that's a lie that he's in jail. He's painting seashells right now. You all saw the brochure he had." (202)

If you've read The Giver, this scenario may seem all too familiar: Duc Dan, a former member of the Pubyok, is not living it up on the seashore. There's no alternative utopian retirement society to which he's been "released." Rather, he's died a miserable death in the grim infirmary of Prison 33, from which Jun Do/Imposter Ga escaped. But his former colleagues can't bear the burden of the fate that will surely await them, to—so they spin a different end for their friend.

Part 2, Pages 251-271

"This is what hunger must feel like," she said, "this hollowness inside. This is what people must feel in Africa, where they have nothing to eat." (259)

Jun Do/Imposter Ga has just made it up to Pyongyang after a nasty stint in a prison camp, so Sun Moon's perception of hunger as something that happens in other places really sets him on edge. In reality, Sun Moon knows all too well what it means to starve. Her denial that such things happen in North Korea insulates her from her own reality and helps her tell a different story about her life.

The Dear Leader folded the cloth and gave it to Ga for his nose. Then he lifted Ga's arm. "And here is the real Commander Ga. He has beaten Kimura, and now he will defeat the Americans." (258)

When Kim Jong Il designates Jun Do the new real Commander Ga, it's like we've entered an alternate universe. It's a place where the supreme leader can bend the rules of identity and personal will to create and un-create people on the spot—it's like Freaky Friday, but the stakes are actually high and real. As Jun Do learns, in North Korea, it's the story that's important—not the individual.

Part 2, Pages 293-305

Here were the names of all the boys he'd known, and looking at their busts, it seemed as though they'd made it to adulthood—here they had mustaches and strong jaws and broad shoulders... It was as if, instead of starving at nine or falling to factory accidents at eleven, they'd all lived into their twenties and thirties like normal men. (294)

When Jun Do/Imposter Ga walks through the Martyrs' Cemetery, it's like entering a parallel universe. In that new dimension, all the desperate things he did to protect himself (like sending other children to untimely deaths) have no real consequences. It's a dream world, but it also highlights the horror of a past that has to be suppressed in order for Jun Do to face the reality of his present life.

Part 2, Pages 366-387

"Soon, I'll be able to fold up another one of Su-Kee's dresses and put it away. That's how I mark our life. When I'm old, it's what I hope to leave behind—a chain of unworn white dresses." (375)

Comrade Buc's wife is living a life of unspeakable psychological pain, knowing that at any moment a "crow" can come and cart her family off to a prison camp. She and her husband are determined to end it all—for themselves and their children—before any such thing can happen. Her dignity and self-control in the face of such existential stress is symbolized by those white suicide dresses she makes for her daughters. The fact that she marks time by how many the children have outgrown—that's how many times they've cheated death—makes us feel like we've entered alternative universe.

Part 2, Pages 407-417

Soon I would be in a rural village, green and peaceful, where people swung their scythes in silence. There would be a widow there, and we would waste no time on courtship. I would approach her and tell her I was her new husband. (412)

The Interrogator appears at first to have no personal identity (hence the lack of name), but he does have a very specific vision for his fantasy life. It's a world that he can only reach through self-inflicted torture, but it's clear that the peace of a normal life can't be his any other way. His vision of Eden is not only green and peaceful; it also includes a person with whom he can connect and who will live for him.

Part 2, Pages 417-438

Ga thought about reminding the Dear Leader that they lived in a land where people had been trained to accept any reality presented to them. He considered sharing how there was only one penalty, the ultimate one, for questioning reality, how a citizen could fall into great jeopardy for simply noticing that realities had changed. (418)

Imposter Ga can't help but reflect on the irony of this situation—that Kim Jong Il, the ultimate storyteller and bender of reality, wants to get at the truth of how the former Jun Do broke out of prison. The Dear Leader seems unaware that his policy of privileging a good story over truth has ruined his chances of ever learning what really happened down in that prison mine.

Part 2, Pages 439-443

Dipping his finger in a bloody wound, Commander Ga wrote inspirational slogans on the plane's windows, and to give Sun Moon some measure of resolve, he wrote in red, backward, a reminder of the Dear Leader's eternal love for her, nay, of his love for every citizen of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea! (442)

Jun Do/Imposter Ga's narrative line ends several times, but none so dramatically as in this version cooked up by the guys from Propaganda. This story solidly illustrates what the Captain observed earlier in the work: the state needs stories it can use, no matter how unbelievable. Commander Ga as hero and martyr in the fight against American aggressors is far more usable than an impostor who one-upped the Dear Leader and took his fate into his own hands.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...