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At first, Adam Johnson's The Orphan Master's Son appears to be a straight-forward story set in a nation surrounded in secrecy and deception, North Korea.

Pak Jun Do is the son of a man who operates a camp where orphans are dumped until either adopted to work at hard labor or who perform ad hoc hard labor. His mother, a wonderful singer, was taken years ago. Jun Do names all the orphans after war heroes, saving for himself the name of a warrior who proved he could be trusted by killing himself.

During the long famine, the orphans die off, his father runs off and Jun Do ends up in the tunnels, trained to kill in the dark. He next surfaces in the hold of a rusting fishing vessel, monitoring radio transmissions by night and trying to fit in with the crew. He's deemed a hero, sent to Texas, sent to prison and tortured, sent to impersonate a former hero of the nation now in disfavor, and tortured. His life is not his own.

The novel throws some strange twists at the reader and tries more than one way to convey narrative. After Jun Do is sent to prison, a second narrator, a nameless interrogator who tries to get the truth from him, carries part of the story. He cares for his blind parents, who are afraid to say anything that would not be approved by the ruling elite.

This interrogator, who tortures people, is as powerless as anyone though, getting swept up in involuntary rice harvesting because he's out on the street and not on a bus. Part of the story is told as the annual Best North Korea story broadcast daily. Part of it backtracks to what happened when Jun Do disappeared and became commander Ga, military hero and husband of beloved actress Sun Moon.

The Orphan Master's Son is ultimately about the ways that, when leaders deceive us, we not only go along with it in order to survive, we find new ways to fool ourselves. The actress Sun Moon sees starving families scavenging through tree branches, trying to find chestnuts to eat even though they are as illegal as poaching the king's deer was in Olde England. She says they are acrobats performing for her.

Jun Do is forced by the captain of the fishing trawler on which he is parked with his listening radio to act like a fisherman when the Americans board, and fails. He fools himself into thinking the crew and captain were like a family. He is left in the apartment of the wife of the Second Mate, who deserts, and she thinks she will be given to some handsome hero of the country as a replacement spouse. Instead, two old, corrupt men are the possibilities.

The fishermen of North Korea have portraits of their wives tattoed on their chests. Jun Do's chest is tattoed aboard ship with the portrait of Sun Moon after his poor job of impersonating a real seaman. The real Sun Moon is given to Commenader Ga as a wife. Jun Do ends up impersonating Ga. Sun Moon is told to treat him as her husband. "Dear Leader" knows it's an impersonation but calls him Ga and refers to Jun Do as another person.

All this deceit from above, from the daily news that the Americans are attacking, that South Korea is suffering from natural disasters and North Korea is shipping food and medicine to the rescue, that the entire world envies North Korea. The characters in this novel don't let themselves question these "truths". It's as if they know that that way lies madness.

The few times their understanding breaks through are brief and poignant. Sun Moon, for example, without saying so, realizes her mother has not retired to a seaside town to enjoy life. But her eyes show "a darker knowing". And then she snaps back into her role of obedient citizen. When confronted later with more unwanted information on the subject, she tells the informant: "You're a thief," she said. "You are a thief who came into my life and stole everythng that mattered to me."

Commander Ga has a sorrowful reminder of his past as Jun Do while in prison when a character from earlier in the novel returns unexpectedly. While comforted, he is called a poor little orphan. He returns to his usual refrain: I am not an orphan. Yes he is. But he will never say so. As another character tells him, he can speak a lie while telling the truth.

And he tells himself "of how difficult it was to come to see the lies you told yourself, the ones that llowed you to function and move forward. To really do it, you needed someone's help."

Johnson presents all this deceit within the context of humans trying to survive. There is no national hubris, no sense of superiority from a Western writer.

Because, really, how often do we accept what we know to be false? There is deceit every day in the national political discourse. I've seen it since Vietnam news coverage as a child, and watched ketchup labeled as a vegetable for school lunches, trees as polluters and missiles as peacekeepers in the Reagan era. "Trickle down" economics seriously described as letting the rich get richer and we would all benefit from their mumnificence. As if. And that's still bought today by regular people.

The U.S. has plenty of people who deceive themselves, who don't see anything wrong with New York City police spying on protest groups and spying throughout the country, outside their jurisdiction, who think that tax cuts for the rich are somehow going to benefit them, who believe that public education should treat children like widgets on a factory assembly line, that laziness is what keeps poor people poor, that paying into Social Security one's entire working life somehow makes retirement benefits an "entitlement".

As a society, we Americans can be pretty good at fooling ourselves.

Once I had that lightbulb moment, the outcome of what happened to characters began to matter. They no longer were ciphers moving through set pieces of repression. They became people who, while not often allowing themselves to think through the ramifications of their plight, were still capable of caring for others. They became people whose lives mattered. And how they were going to avoid outcomes that were not devastating was going to take a magician's talent. For the second half of the book, I kept wondering if Johnson was going to pull it off. The ending is rather cinematic, as many novel endings are these days, but he keeps to the spirit of what he has been trying to accomplish. The ending works if the readers believes that despite what the North Korean characters say and do, they know the truth of their situation.

At the same time, North Korean and American cultural differences were a natural part of the story. The trip to Texas, as part of a delegation visiting a Texas senator at home, is a strong story in its own right. It has repercussions and implications throughout the rest of the novel, but the various layers of communicating frankly and in code play out brilliantly. The North Koreans, whether living under a brutal dictator or not, are thoroughly disgusted by some of the things they see. An outdoor barbecue is being forced to eat outside with filthy dogs. Cutting brush, an activity George Bush delighted in doing for the cameras, is seen as degrading slave labor. And what is wrong with these Americans that they have to put cheese on all their food?

Another new book that explores North and South Korea, and America, is the story collection Drifting House by Krys Lee. I look forward to reading it.

Elsewhere on the contemporary literary fiction scene, to contribute to your own TBR mountains, the annual Tournament of Books is entering its final stages. The yearly passionate discussion of the best of the past few months in modern literature can be found at

Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Mar 27, 2012 at 07:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by DKOMA and Community Spotlight.

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