The Pulitzer Prize for fiction “has been awarded for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.” Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son is a glorious coming of age novel about a fictional child in North Korea who climbs from obscurity to the pinnacle of power – something that would, in fact, be quite far-fetched – so far-fetched, the narrative maintains, that it takes people by surprise, and the audacity of the character and his life makes what he accomplishes possible. So this rags to riches tale is American in form, but, I think, more deeply related to American life, and the reason to award this prize, which has gone to such books as To Kill A Mockingbird and American Pastoral, has to do with what I believe the judges took to be the essentially American perspective of the book, one that I will try to address from a psychoanalytic perspective.
The narrative in this book is organized into two sections: “The Biography of Jun Do,” and “The Confessions of Commander Ga.” In fact, the characters who are highlighted in each section are one and the same person. Jun Do is the orphan master’s son, a boy whose mother has died, who grows up in an orphanage with his parental relationship to the orphan master obscured so that he is not perceived to be privileged compared to the others in the orphanage, kids who take on the lowest and most dangerous work and that frequently leads to their death or maiming, with only the slim hope that they will be adopted – though this turns out to be a false hope as the adoptions are frequently by state agencies who use the orphans as slaves in various dangerous industries, and orphans can never marry and have children because they don't have a family to represent them, so being saved by this kind of adoption. not to a real family that would support their becoming capable of having a family of their own, is an empty fantasy.
Jun Do's name is an orphan name - meaning he is named for one of the 118 heroes of the war of American aggression. His particular hero's quality is one of loyalty. And, while the name highlights a virtue - indeed Jun Do's virtue - it is also a brand, one that makes him immediately recognizable as an orphan. When the orphanage falls apart and he loses his father, Jun Do goes into the military to be trained in an adaptation of Taekwondo: he learns special techniques to fight in the dark so that he can defend the tunnels that pass under the DMZ into South Korea. He then becomes a translator of English so that he can listen to military communication from a fishing boat and report on what he hears. On the boat, when it is boarded by the US Navy, he becomes a North Korean National hero – through subterfuge. The boarders see the shabby shape the boat is in – it has no fire extinguisher and no life boat. Both are absent because they are expensive, but the life boat is also not there to prevent defection. So, of course, when the fishing boat goes out on its next trip equipped with a life boat, one of the sailors steals the life boat and sets out to defect.
The rest of the crew would be held responsible when they get back to port, so they concoct a story where the defector was thrown overboard to the sharks by the US Navy who they state reboarded them. They add that Jun Do jumped into the water to save the crew member, and, to make the story plausible, the fishermen catch sharks and inflict shark wounds (which they then sew up with fishing line) to Jun Do. After Jun Do tells his tale, he is conscripted into a group that goes to America to argue that the US is routinely engaged in acts of piracy - his is an example - in order that Kim Jong Il can recover a remote sensor of radioactivity the US intercepted on its way to North Korea. The argument being something like - you routinely steal from us and board our sovereign vessels, so you need to return this thing we own that you have unlawfully taken.
Jun Do is chosen to be the ambassador's truth teller not because the content of his story holds water - this is the Korean means to evaluating the truth of a narrative- but because of the certainty with which he tells the tale - which is what the American's listen for when they hear a story. What we have access to is the reason this is the case. Jun Do draws on very real experiences to inform the affect that he brings to a narrative. The particular facts of the narrative are a fiction, but the emotional tenor of the narrative is true - to the marrow of his bones. From this perspective, the Orphan Master's Son mirrors The Life of Pi. The irony of this junket is that everything about it is a sham - and there is more than a little humor in the ways that the Koreans interpret Texan's honest attempts at hospitality (they go to a Senator's home in Texas) as one long series of insults - and are frustrated that their own insults are deflected or received with grace - something that feels, on some level, humiliating to them.
After his return (which did not eventuate in the return of the stolen goods), Jun Do is thrown into a prison - for unclear reasons - apparently this more or less just happens to people - where he mines for uranium. Commander Ga is the minister of all the prisons in North Korea. He achieved this standard by winning an international Taekwondo competition bringing great honor to his country. He was rewarded by becoming a cabinet minister, and was given the most beautiful woman in Korea, the actress Sun Moon, as a bride. She had been a consort of some sort of Kim Il Jung's. Kim Il Jong had written all of her movies for her and she was clearly his truly beloved.
Commander Ga, it turns out, is a bully who routinely beats and then sodomizes other men, and then takes a photograph of them after he has disgraced them. He has also disgraced Kim Jong Il and they are currently experiencing a Cold War. When Commander Ga visits the prison, he decides to pick on Jun Do in the mines. Jun Do kicks out the light and soundly defeats him in the dark - likely killing him. Then Jun Do does the unthinkable - he assumes Commander Ga's persona and convinces first the head of the mine and then Ga's driver that he is Ga. He returns to Ga's home and then to his office and functions as if he were Ga. This is understandably confusing to people like Sun Moon - who assumes that this is some sort of test by her husband, whom she assumes to be still alive and cruelly engaged with her. Jun Do/Ga's salvation is that he publicly apologizes to Kim Il Jung, who publicly accepts the apology and thus cements him into place as being the person he has pretended to be.
So why is this such an American tale? This spring President Clinton gave a graduation speech at Howard University where he stressed that the privilege the graduates of Howard University (and every other University in the US) enjoy is the opportunity to choose their vocation. Most people, historically and currently, are forced by economic necessity into work that will feed themselves and their families by whatever means presents itself. It is only here (and in other developed nations) that many of us are able to follow - sometimes discover and follow - our passions. (Btw, Bill Clinton included additional good advice - do what you are good at and you will be more likely to be happy).
Jun Do determines what the other orphans will do. As the orphan master's son, he assigns them to various tasks, including those that will maim and kill them. He is able to keep himself relatively safe, but must bear the burden of responsibility for other people's fates. His own fate is determined by outside forces until the transformative moment when he assumes command of Ga. From this moment forward, he enjoys a certain kind of freedom - but, this being North Korea - it is a limited kind of Freedom. He falls in love with Sun Moon and her children, and he is aware that they are going to be condemned if they stay in this country. And we are able to see that as a new character is introduced - a "progressive" member of the interrogation unit of the secret police, he cannot have an open relationship with his parents. We come to realize, along with Jun Do and the police officer, that old people in North Korea do not, as the propaganda maintains, retire to the coast to frolic in the surf. Old people die - they are forcibly removed from power, if they have that, and tortured. If not, they are randomly imprisoned, or sent to the country to pick rice at harvest time, wearing city clothes, and they may or may not find their way back. This Orwellian world they live in would be unbearable if they could feel the full force of it (and would be unbearable to us as readers if we were exposed in a raw way to it), so things occur passively, not actively. Events happen. And we are simply witness to what is happening, including in our own lives.
Jun Do, then, bucks this system. He does not simply witness his life, but instead inhabits it. He chooses to assume an identity, and he chooses to exercise his will. But he cannot escape his fate. He ends up with the same fate as the hero he is named after - he sacrifices himself because of his feelings of loyalty.
Why is this distinctly American? On the surface, it is not. This is not our happy ending of being able to assume a new identity - something that is part of our mythology - but we are not able, in this tale to escape our fate. So, I think from this perspective, this might be a cautionary tale, as so many other Pulitzer Prize winners have been. We should be looking for what it is that we become enslaved to in the US; what might we do to help our families escape this slavery? What news will they send back from the new, better world? What will that world look like? The portrait of the US in this book - of Texas, of two women rowing around the world (OK, I left out a lot of subplots - this is a big rich book with lots of good stuff to sink your teeth into), of spies and compassion, is the most admired but also feared country in the world. It, ultimately, is not a place that Jun Do longs to go to. He is North Korean. This is his home. And, as isolated as it is (and, by extension, as isolated as we are in the US - this is a very strange mirror that is being held up for us to see ourselves in), it is our place. And what we are doing to others is largely outside of our awareness. How can we become aware, as Jun Do does? Do we need the training in pain control that he has received in order to tolerate accurately perceiving the world and our place in it? I think this text assumes that it will take great strength to be able to directly confront reality - a psychoanalytic truth if there ever was one. And, even when we do that, we are not going to be able to escape our fate. We are not, in important - essential - ways free. We are bound by circumstance, time and fate, and by our own mortality, to a particular place and to a particular end - one that we may not recognize until we arrive at it.
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