Humanitarian Disaster Romance
By Adam Johnson
Random House, 2012
Writing fiction about North Korea is no mean feat. News headlines out of the closeted regime already stretch the boundaries of the imagination, with reports of horrifying famines outdone by Dear Leader’s taste for Hollywood and Hennessey. We’ve even had a deus ex machina—Bill Clinton delivering imprisoned American women from sentences of hard labor. And more recently, Kim Jong-Un’s succession in the world’s only patrilineal Worker’s Party bestowed upon us the absurd: his father’s coffin on a bier of white flowers, riding atop an old-school Lincoln Continental, seemingly without a hint of irony. Here is a regime that just won’t stop giving.
With such competition, what more could a novel about North Korea add? Adam Johnson, author of a novel set in North Korea, The Orphan Master’s Son, believes that fiction adds something absolutely essential to our idea of the hermit kingdom. In an interview with Richard Powers, he explains:
When life is about survival, rather than being human, people are less able to speak in terms of yearning, growth, discovery, change, and so on. […] This is where the limits of nonfiction become visible. And it’s where we must turn to fiction, which focuses on what deprivation does to identity, memory, and basic humanity. The research-based dimension of my book delivers the authority of life lived. Yet it’s the fiction that restores what North Korea strips from its survivors […] I think there are some stories that can only be told via a novel, and right now, the human dimension of North Korea is one of them.
Few readers would disagree with fiction’s humanizing powers and imaginative potential. However, those who have read Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy would probably beg to differ about the limits of the human dimension in the factual. In Demick’s captivating literary nonfiction, she tells the stories of six North Korean defectors based on her interviewing and research. We are privy to disillusionment, conversion, and often-difficult acculturation to life after North Korea. We read firsthand accounts of the moments at which these citizens began to imagine otherwise and are eventually transformed by their realizations.
One of the most surprising and moving stories in Nothing to Envy comes from a pair of teenagers in love, Jun-sang and Mi-ran. It’s classic boy meets girl at the movies. This being North Korea though, they write letters to each other and sneak away on long, chaste walks concealed by the pitch black of the electricity-less night. When a love letter goes astray, it’s assumed that the train workers might have burned the mail for warmth. Their ardor is constantly constrained not only by the threat of discovery but by the reality that any association with Mi-ran’s family’s tainted reputation would destroy Jung-san’s promising career. As a decade passes, the hopelessness of their romance and her profession—her classroom decimated by starvation—pushes Mi-ran to defect. On the day of her defection, she sees Jun-sang across the street. She freezes, overwhelmed by memories and knowing that disclosing her plan would imperil him.
Mi-ran and Jun-sang’s romance is both powerfully real in its human devastation and undeniably novelistic. It’s a story of first love star-crossed by family, famine, and totalitarian oppression. Seeing such a familiar experience as first love shaped by their unfamiliar realities, we are able to grasp incomprehensible hardship. Moreover, the absurdities of their situation—a decade-long epistolary romance in this day and age—allow us to see the all-too-human consequences of the regime.
But is this not what Johnson is talking about in his interview? What does The Orphan Master’s Son demonstrate, then, as a work of fiction about North Korea?
We are introduced to Pak Jun Do, the protagonist and titular character of The Orphan Master’s Son, in the orphanage run by his father. The Orphan Master keeps a photograph of a beautiful woman on his wall, and the proof that she is Jun Do’s missing mother comes in the form of pain, the “unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment,” “a daily reminder of the eternal hurt he felt from losing her.” In this novel, identity is predicated on loss, wounds, and damages. The punishment meted out to Jun Do—“only a father in that kind of pain could take a boy’s shoes in winter. Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel”—is precisely what proves he is not alone in the world. Sharing injury means caring in this paradoxical world of conjoined extremes. Even Jun Do’s name is a contradiction; while he’s not an orphan, he takes his name from a list of North Korean martyrs, as is the practice in naming orphans. Jun Do’s namesake, distrusted by his revolutionary unit because of his impure bloodline, proved his loyalty by hanging himself. There are, apparently, no half-measures in North Korea.
The Orphan Master’s Son is a veritable picaresque of hardship in which Jun Do is thrust from one perilous occupation into another. In the first half of the novel we follow Jun Do as he is forced to play out a variety of roles: orphan, tunnel fighter, kidnapper, spy, fisherman, prisoner, and imposter. Recruited from a military unit trained for combat in total darkness, Jun Do learns how to kidnap ordinary Japanese citizens, spiriting them away to North Korea. He then joins the crew of a fishing vessel with orders to monitor international radio transmissions from the ship’s hold, even reaching a motley kind of brotherhood with his shipmates. To escape punishment after a shipmate defects, Jun Do and the other sailors invent a story about bravely confronting the US Navy. The tale makes Jun Do a bona fide hero, though only after submitting to impossibly painful questioning. He’s then sent on a secret mission to Texas, of all places, and after a quick reversal of fortune, to a North Korean work camp.
The novel’s second half spins out Jun Do’s last and most impressive role: escaping the camp and hiding in plain sight as Commander Ga, a North Korean hero who had “won the Golden Belt, who’d bested Kimura in Japan, who’d rid the military of homosexuals and then married our nation’s actress.” When Jun Do is finally dragged into the interrogators’ headquarters and imprisoned, the burning question is not what happened to Commander Ga, but what has happened to Ga’s family—Ga’s wife, Sun Moon the beloved movie star and confidante to the Dear Leader, and their two children. They have seemingly vanished. One of the lead interrogators—the novel switches intermittently to his perspective—begins to piece together the mystery of their disappearance and the imposter’s true identity, which begins to awaken him to to his own complicity in a ruthless regime.
If the hero of a traditional picaresque lives by his wits, then in this North Korean rendition Jun Do lives by his heart. He is a sensitive hero, often troubled by the costly price of survival. The cruel choices he had to make at the orphanage, assigning deadly duties and granting life-saving privileges, continually haunt him. He cannot help but remember each of his kidnapped victims, later composing a list of their names so that the victims’ relatives will know that they are “alive and well in North Korea.” After the episode of the crewmember’s defection, Jun Do is tortured by a state interrogator for hours to test the ship’s cover-up. Deliriously, he asks his interrogator, “But where are they? Will we ever find them?” His pronouns conflate missing persons and answers—irrevocably gone, yet ever present.
Jun Do is the emotional, ethical backbone of the novel. He perseveres with his capacity for sympathy intact. Johnson even provides a classic cinematic role model when Jun Do and Sun Moon watch a contraband copy of the “best movie ever made,” Casablanca. At the end of the film, Sun Moon implores Jun Do that he must help her escape “because you are like Rick. You are an honorable man like Rick in the movie.” He gladly takes up this American cliché: his Rick to her Ilsa. For the first time in his life he is part of an “us,” “words he hadn’t known he’d been waiting his whole life to hear.” All of his previous roles, exercises in loss, deprivation, and isolation, have prepared him well for the Casablanca code he feels he must enact: that it’s not how much you give, but rather how much you give up.
For the characters of The Orphan Master’s Son, depth of feeling consumes—and sustains. In many cases the characters suffer as much emotionally as they do physically, afflicted by deep sorrow in the Korean tradition of “han.” Han is a somewhat untranslatable word suggesting a kind of throbbing grief and injustice; it is a central concept in Korean consciousness. These characters are freighted with immense emotional burdens imposed by the state: Jun Do’s mother was recruited to the capital; the ship’s captain’s ex-wife was reassigned to another husband; Comrade Buc is a bureaucrat readying his family for mass-suicide to escape imprisonment. Such vignettes elicit immediate empathy, arousing sentiment that draws us in and invests us in the characters. Johnson is not afraid of evoking strong feeling, particularly through his sensitive hero, even at the risk of cinematic melodrama This strategy helps us identify with Jun Do in ways that would ordinarily trigger our cynicism.
Johnson is too smart not to temper this sentimentality. He draws from a variety of sources, from the absurdities of North Korean propaganda to the humor of cultural difference (“You want to tell me what a Bergman is? How about an Ingrid?”). The characters themselves understand the many uses of interpretation: that a story’s utility trumps its believability and that getting at a prisoner’s truth can have two literally competing schools of interrogation. We are taught by the novel to cast a critical eye on storytelling, with over-the-top propaganda framing the novel itself and, in a way, juxtaposing the emotional ploys of state propaganda with the narrative’s own strategies. But this critical awareness carefully preserves the sentiment fueling Jun Do’s story. When Jun Do asks why he must receive the requisite fisherman’s tattoo of one’s wife while he is on board the ship, he’s given several reasons by the crew, each one valid:
“The tattoo,” the Captain said, “is for the Americans and South Koreans. To them, it will simply be a female face.”
“Honestly,” Jun Do said. “I don’t even know why you guys do this, what’s the point of tattooing your wife’s face on your chest?”
The Second Mate said, “Because you’re a fisherman, that’s why.”
“So they can identify your body,” the Pilot said.
The quiet machinist said, “So that whenever you think of her, there she is.”
“Oh, that sounds noble,” the First Mate said. “But it’s to give the wives peace of mind. They think no other woman will sleep with a man who has such a tattoo, but there are ways of course, there are girls.’
“There is only one reason,” the Captain said, “It’s because it places her in your heart forever.”
A simple question provokes answers that range from the practical to the poetic. In this proliferation of meaning, these reasons are surprisingly expressive, offering us glimpses into these crewmembers’ inner lives. When the captain concludes the round with his most heartfelt answer, there’s a lyric finality. Because Jun Do is unmarried, the captain inks Jun Do’s chest with the face of the actress Sun Moon. And most poetically of all, the captain’s word is made flesh, as the twists of the plot ensure that the tattoo does place Sun Moon in Jun Do’s heart forever.
Yet there are larger reasons that Johnson can risk such excesses of sentimentality without—usually—seeming insincere or manipulative. For one thing, The Orphan Master’s Son is finely attuned to our desire for the feeling rather than the factual understanding of the reality of hardship and privation. In Johnson’s depiction it is romantic, imaginative, and existential. Even the harshest of circumstances—the labor prison—becomes art. When Jun Do is imprisoned, Mongnan, an enigmatic, laconic mentor takes him under her wing. She shows him how to survive, bringing him to secret corners of the prison to reveal unexpected sources of food. She leads him to a searchlight that has just burned out to eat the moths lying dead underneath it, their “wings slightly singed but ready to keep them alive another week.” At another point Mongnan shows him when to reach past the electrified fence to pull up radishes and ginger: “you could always tell ginger plants whose tap root had penetrated a corpse: the blooms were larger, iridescent yellow, and it was hard to jerk loose a plant whose roots had hooked a rib below.” These are stark, unforgiving moments, but they are also beautiful. Furthermore, Mongnan is the unofficial camp photographer, recording the moment people arrive and when they depart, clipping the two photos back to back and conjoining life and death. She bequeaths this artistic album of suffering to Jun Do.
The novel’s sentimentality is also so effective because the novel itself is presented to the reader as a romance. It is, of course, a love story between two North Koreans. But at its heart, it is a book that loves the adventure of belief above all else. From the self to society, thoughts to principles, orphaned isolation to total intimacy, Johnson wants to explore the furthest reaches of conviction. And in this pursuit, he is insistent that his characters’ capacity for love and hope challenge the regime’s capacity for brutality and torture. By his logic, his story must necessarily be so outsized in order to transcend even the harshest totalitarian persecution.
If the amplitude of sentimentality rises to match that of hardship, does it detract from the violence of such circumstances? In entertaining ourselves, are we indulging in a humanitarian disaster romance? French philosopher Jean Baudrillard spoke of a “New Sentimental Order,” a crisis of meaning for the West in which “other people’s misery and humanitarian catastrophes have become our last stamping ground for adventurers.” Indeed, we are fascinated by a North Korean society that does not seem consistent with our existence, a throwback culture alien to our age of information and instant gratification. The harshness of survival and terror heighten what emotions signify; they provide a necessary urgency and coherence to the characters’ feelings and to the narrative. In our imaginings of North Korea, we are able to have a land where moral choices and emotions are uncomplicated. As Jun Do explains on his visit to Texas, “When you’re in my country, everything makes simple, clear sense. It’s the most straightforward place on earth.”
Perhaps the most valuable feat of Johnson’s fiction is to demonstrate just what it takes to make North Korean hardship accessible. The human dimension Johnson speaks of in the interview and fictionalizes in The Orphan Master’s Son is less about North Koreans and more about us. If our heroes are our innate desires realized, then Jun Do manifests our idealized emotional selves, the hope that we too would defy the harshest of conditions. As we try to imagine and understand North Korea—its inscrutable, child-like, manipulative, absurd, terrifying, hypocritical nature—we also want to see ourselves, but better. We long for a place and time where what we believe to be real feeling is still possible. So, as usual, it’s all about us, Dear Reader.
Joyce W. Lee lives in Brooklyn, New York.