Okay, technically this book is fiction, or at least fictionalized. But it’s got a haunting amount of truthiness, all the same. From the accounts of abductions of Japanese by North Korean agents to the exploration of how to survive in a totalitarian regime, it all feels plenty real. So perhaps I should dub it “As Strange As the Truth”, because even though individual characters were invented for this book, and the author writes plenty of speeches for Kim Jong Il despite having no way on earth to verify if the Dear Leader ever actually uttered something like that, those speeches sound all too plausible, and the characters heartrendingly vivid as they suffer.
It’s the best treatment, fictional(ized) or otherwise, of North Korea ever, in my opinion, and also, apparently, in the opinion of the people who were handing out the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. But does it really belong in this series, which is supposed to be devoted to factual, non-fiction writing whose content is so bizarre it reads like fiction? My answer is an emphatic yes, and here’s why.
I don’t know of a single factual account of everyday life in contemporary North Korea, and while any such book would doubtless be stranger, indeed, than fiction, the absence of credible information makes any such reportage nigh impossible. Instead, with so little hard data about what life is actually like day to day in North Korea, fiction is the only option left. But rather than taking the literary low road and focusing on only the upper echelon of decision-makers, Johnson took the opposite tack, filling his account with ordinary characters so realistic their suffering cannot fail but to batter the reader with punishing waves of empathy.
How has Johnson managed this miracle? Everyone knows “those North Koreans” are all brainwashed idiots, blind to the reality of their horrible state, and anyone with such a condescending attitude, when witnessing the plight of the North Koreans, can only experience the ugliest emotion of all: pity. What Johnson does is build empathy for the ordinary North Koreans from the bottom up, so that when we witness Park Jun Do (i.e., John Doe) caught in the merciless horns of an impossible dilemma, we wince, not in patronizing pity, but in genuine commiseration. Johnson has made the reality of totalitarian life visible, and while he certainly doesn’t condone such a system of government, he has managed to humanize its internal victims.
Tim O’Brien wrote once about the proverbial soldier falling on a grenade to save a battalion, and used this unlikely idea to meditate about stories and truth. If all we mean by ‘truth’ is ‘factual accuracy’, then we are forced to admit this sort of story is probably not true; it would be more accurate to say that in most cases, the soldier gets shredded but his sacrifice isn’t enough to save the people around him, and in a few cases the grenade doesn’t explode at all, and so forth. But what if we have a wider definition of ‘truth’—a definition that emphasizes emotional bonds more than factual accuracy? In that case, the soldier who successfully absorbed the explosion of a grenade and thereby saved his fellow soldiers’ lives might be even truer than the more accurate story of his sacrifice having been meaningless.
It is in this sense that The Orphan Master’s Son, I believe, belongs in the Stranger than Fiction camp after all. It’s possible that not a single incident covered by the book happened in quite the way it was described, that many, perhaps all of the details in the book are in some sense inaccurate, but do we really read non-fiction only for ‘facts’? Not at all—we read to quench a thirst for something more than that. There is no meaningful difference, to my mind, between fact and fiction, provided of course that a sort of “O’Brien truth” lies at the heart of the fictional endeavor to tell its readers something true.
That’s what Johnson is doing: showing us one way of understanding the plight of the North Koreans, and empathizing with them. And yet, he’s hardly an apologist for the regime; the book won’t make any readers think any better of North Korea as a place/idea/system of government. If anything, their revulsion for the existence of this horrible place/idea/government is bound to increase a great deal…yet without causing readers to transfer that disgust to the people trapped within the thing called North Korea. In truth, it’s precisely because the reader begins to empathize with those people that the horrors of the regime become intolerable: Johnson has managed to create an emotional connection that supersedes the clinical, rather disinterested and almost knee-jerk judgment of North Korea as a ‘bad place’. Paradoxical, isn’t it? By spelling out in such detail why the place is so bad, Johnson arouses in all of us a strange melancholy, a fellow suffering that cannot end so long as the place remains. It turns out O’Brien was right: we readers rightly prefer, not the version of a story that is most accurate and meticulously, carefully constructed (which rarely moves us), but rather the one in which some glimpse of a deeper truth is possible. Emancipate yourself from the prison of facts, and break through to the truth!
Strange factor: 9/10
Factual factor: 3/10
On behalf of Nerds of a Feather (and fellow-feathered nerds), Zhaoyun has been searching through fact and fiction for truthiness in all its forms, and reporting the results here, since 2013.