The Orphan Master’s Son, set in North Korea, by Adam Johnson is a literary tale about identity and story. The setting, plot, and characters captivate on their own level to bring us a story we can relate to.
Most of the major characters are unnamed or given a pseudonym. The main character never knows his real name and, in the first part of the book, chooses his own from a list of martyrs. He picks Pak Jun Do and goes by Jun Do (John Doe).
Sun Moon is the actress whose picture Jun Do gets tattooed onto his chest so he wouldn’t be mistaken for a spy, but that is not her real name. It is given to her by the dictator Kim Il Sung who discovers her. Her children have names but never tell them because “[n]ames come and go. Names change. . . A name isn’t a person. . . It’s you that matter, not your names.”
In the second part of the book, Pak Jun Do takes on the identity of another man, Commander Ga, whom he may or may not have killed in self defense. He moves from being the one “steered by others” who is “trying to escape from their paths” to “a man who steps on the gas” when he puts on Commander Ga’s uniform, rides in his car, and moves into the house Ga had shared with the nation’s movie actress, Sun Moon.
Story is the thread that stitches Jun Do’s narrative together. He is told early in the book that it doesn’t matter who you are in North Korea, all that matters is your story.
When Jun Do names the orphans (and himself), his choice is based on the martyr’s stories. With his kidnapper job, he hears a story (opera), and his spy job enables him to listen to the stories on the short-wave radio, his favorite part of his job.
Whenever a situation occurs that could prove dangerous, Jun Do and his fellow workers make up elaborate stories to share with the government agents who question them. The final part of the book is about an interrogator whose job is writing down people’s stories before erasing their memories with a special machine.
Madeleine L’Engle in her book Walking On Water states “to write a story is an act of Naming.” Jun Do starts out not knowing his real name, and, by the ending, he is back at that same place.
The government, in trying to extract his story from him, is unable to learn his identity. This powerful government which rules the lives of all its citizens is impotent.
At the end of The Orphan Master’s Son, Jun Do approaches his lack of name as a changed man.
He embraces this reality because he has written his own story of who he is.
Now he is his story. And he is named.