THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON by Adam Johnson (First published by Random House, 2012)


This is the story of a survivor who has nothing to live for.

Pak Jun Do is a North Korean John Doe and by all accounts a model citizen of a shitty nation.

Adam Johnson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel illustrates that when living within ideological systems it is too easy to get stuck between a rock and a hard place. Hegemony functions to make any way of life appear to be ‘normal’ and/or beyond reproach.

Johnson asks plenty of loaded questions such as to whether it is nobler to be devoted to the ‘dear leader’ (Kim Jon II) of North Korea than to cling to an often elusive American dream. No middle way is offered.

In the process he shows how communism functions best by constructing a web of lies and maintaining a high level of deceit. In contrast, capitalism thrives on bribery and corruption. Both are oppressive in that the powers that be hold onto their bogus authority through state funded deception and, if this fails, thuggery.

In dealing with such complex issues it is impossible to be entirely neutral so in many ways the novel is itself a form or propaganda. North Korea is such a closed and secretive society that any version of how leaders operate has to be a fiction.

Johnson’s account is credible but so densely plotted that the novel becomes a struggle to read. Ideas too often take precedence over character development.

At heart it’s a kind of convoluted satire with its main target being directed towards the East. However, it also shows how we in the so-called privileged West have little to feel smug about.

‘Character is destiny’ may seem like a noble philosophy but this is also dependent on geographical location and political regimes.

The sobering message I took from the book is that we are less in control of our lives than we like to think while ,to quote the line from Kris Kristofferson’s Me And Bobby McGee, “freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”.