There are many good reasons to read novels: for pure (or not-so-pure) pleasure, for a brief respite from the pressures or drudgery in our daily lives, for the chance to jump in another person’s skin and experience a different life, or to be enlightened about issues of importance. The best novels manage to strike all these bells at once, and we readers emerge from the final pages humbled, enriched–and wiser. Two Pulitzer Prize winners, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen and The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, have much to teach us about the war we’d rather forget–Vietnam–and that nightmarish country known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. They’re also great reads.
I recently finished The Sympathizer, which took home this year’s fiction prize. Nguyen has some personal knowledge about his subject matter. His parents fled Vietnam as refugees and resettled in the United States with Nguyen when he was four. He is now a professor at the University of Southern California teaching English and American Studies and Ethnicity. In this debut novel, he sets out to reveal the truth from a Vietnamese perspective.
The novel opens in Saigon (S. Vietnam) at the tail end of the war in April 1975. The Americans have called it quits which means the N. Vietnamese (the communists) are about to win and anybody fighting for the South is in big trouble, particularly those in power. The President of S. Vietnam resigns and a few days later steals away on a plane to Taiwan. “His heavy suitcases clanked with something metallic, presumably a share of our nation’s gold.” Another plane trying to leave is bombed, but the survivors regroup, re-plane and head for the United States. On board is one S. Vietnamese general and his 58 extended family members, a group of hand-picked officers, and our unnamed 30-year-old narrator–the sympathizer. He’s a trusted aid to the general (he speaks English like an American, having gone to college in CA) but in reality he’s a double agent, a plant who is loyal to the Communist cause. The General has no wish to stay and die, but his deepest desire is to return and defeat the Communists. The Sympathizer’s job is to keep an eye on him and report back.
The U.S. lost 58,000 soldiers in the Vietnam War. Three million Vietnamese died (in what they call the American War), more than half of them were civilians, and hundreds of thousands more disappeared at sea trying to escape by boat. In an interview included at the end of the novel, Nguyen talks about ‘writing a novel full of rage against U.S. imperialism,’ but states that he didn’t want to let anybody off the hook. “So the book is also very critical of South Vietnamese culture and politics and Vietnamese communism. Instead of choosing its targets selectively–only being critical of one group–it decides to hold everyone accountable.”
Vietnam and Korea have several things in common, apart from bordering China. After WWII, both countries were divided up by higher outside powers. And, as with Vietnam, the U.S. entered the Korean War (1950-53) because our leaders were afraid that communism was threatening to expand all across Asia. Adam Johnson takes us to Korea, but not just any Korea, in The Orphan Master’s Son. It won the Pulitzer in 2013. He, too, is a professor (Stanford, Creative Writing). While he’s as American as apple pie, he did his research by reading accounts of N. Korean defectors and by travelling to N. Korea–a true act of courage if you follow the news and read what happens to some unlucky visitors.
His novel is set in recent-present day North Korea under the lethal rule of Kim Jong-Il. (In real life, Kim died in 2011, but his look-alike youngest son Kim Jong-un is the chubby guy who shows up in the news from time to time. Since taking power, he’s ordered the executions of a number of top officials including his uncle, buddied up to basketball star Dennis Rodman, and threatened to nuke the United States.) Kim Jong-Il’s photo is mounted in every factory, office building, school and museum in the country, but it’s not until the second half of the novel that our protagonist Jun Do meets him face to face.
Jun Do is the only kid at the Long Tomorrows orphanage who’s not an orphan. He might as well be, given the way his father treats him. “The surest evidence that the woman in the photo was Jun Do’s mother was the unrelenting way the Orphan Master singled him out for punishment. It could only mean that in Jun Do’s face, the Orphan Master saw the woman in the picture, a daily reminder of the hurt he felt from losing her. Only a father in that kind of pain could take a boy’s shoes in winter. Only a true father, flesh and bone, could burn a son with the smoking end of a coal shovel.” Jun Do’s mother was a singer. And beautiful. And most beautiful young singers from the provinces end up in Pyongyang, the capital, for the pleasure of the officials. The next time we see Jun Do, he’s spent eight years as an underground soldier running missions to S. Korea in total darkness. And so begins our hero’s journey as a puppet of the DPRK forced to do whatever he’s told if he wants to live. Kidnapping. Intelligence surveillance from the hold of a crappy fishing vessel. As a reward, he’s thrown into a Prison Mine Camp, a fate worse than death except for the fact that most stays end in death.
In Part 2, we see Jun Do recreate himself. He escapes the prison in the uniform of the Minister of Prison Mines, a man he’s just killed. Commander Ga is a national hero and an important official in Kim Jong-Il’s cabinet. He’s also married to the beautiful Sun Moon, Korea’s national actress (and singer), who has a very personal relationship with Kim. If you haven’t read the novel–please do!–I won’t spoil the ending for you. It’s fiction, of course, and Part 2 almost reads like a fable–a very believable fable–but here’s the real truth Johnson is getting at. It’s something a shrewd older party official tells Jun Do. “For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change. But in America, people’s stories change all the time. . .it is the man who matters.” Big difference. I don’t think I’ll be visiting North Korea any time soon. And here’s another good reason. Adam Johnson says that all N. Korean women wear the same color lipstick.