The book is in two parts. The first recounts Jun Do’s life in an orphan camp and beyond, into adulthood. The details of life in North Korea are mesmerizing and fascinating, if stunning and disturbing for most Westerners. The second part is about his life as the imposter, where the present narrative takes place in a government detention center, and flashbacks slowly lead to reading to how he got there. This section of the book not only makes use of flashbacks, but government radio announcement transcripts and shifts in point of view to one of his interviewers.
As I read, I was occasionally reminded of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk: His Fortunes in the World War, with a character who moves up in status, along with the same insanity of a dictatorial regime and its social policies. But The Orphan Master’s Son lacked the slapstick humor and obvious exaggerated satire. This depiction of North Korea was all too real, and the human suffering was deeply moving.
A reader sees that, over time, Jun Do has become more and more numb from all the injustice, suffering, meaninglessness, and death in this world. Near the end, his “wife” captures this in one sentence.
“You know what you are?” she said. “You’re a survivor who has nothing to live for.”
Yet he is not without a sympathetic side (a testament to Johnson’s characterization). I found myself stunned at Jun Do’s ability to be cooly brutal, yet also understanding of the forces that made him that way. Likewise, somewhere in that grim, dark soul, a kindness and compassion peeked out on occasion. He had not been completely reduced. These elements kept me reading: I wanted him to find redemption. But how, being such a well-known and public figure in such a statist country? And at what cost?
The Orphan Master’s Son is an excellent read, deserving of the Pulitzer Prize. As disturbing as much of it is, I could not put it down. Merely as an insight into a totalitarian society, it is a fascinating read. But more than that, the depiction of the human propensity for evil and oppression, the courage to keep going, and the desire for meaning, all speak to the human condition—a mark of true artistic literature in my mind.