For me, the novel is about the struggle for "identity" in a place where only the "collective" matter. I believe Johnson's challenge was to develop an engaging protagonist who lives in the surreal, tyrannical, and brutally repressive DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea]. Here, in this "Theater of the Absurd," Kim Jon Il writes all the stories and casts all the characters. Within this "trauma" narrative, Johnson creates Pak Jun Do, a resourceful orphan, who eventually achieves a personal identity and is humanized by love and selfless acts of kindness and courage.
I think it was very clever how Johnson structured the book into two parts to reveal transformation. And, I liked the way he used three narrators to tell Jun Do's story, including Jun Do himself (speaking though in 3rd person), the State/Loudspeaker--a kind of mad Greek chorus, and the Interrogator/Biographer (speaking in 1st person). The first section, "Biography," seems straight forward, following Jun Do from boyhood at his father's orphanage to his career on the fishing boat up until his imprisonment and then a baffling release. This part is written like a linear story about a dutiful and loyal citizen, whose actions are motivated only by his desire to survive.
The second part, "Confessions," tracks Jun Do's escapades after he "becomes" Commander Ga. This narrative is written out of temporal sequence, and is as a result both confusing and suspenseful, forcing the reader to reflect on both the nature and purpose of the narrative structure. At some point it becomes apparent to the reader that all of the Interrogator's narrative is being told after the airport escape, the chronological end of the Jun Do/Commander Ga's story. In this part of the novel, Jun Do's tale is that of a bold risk taker motivated by love and compassion. Looking back on Part One while reading part Two, I came to believe that the entire so-called Biography was "actually" written by the Interrogator/Biographer to give Jun Do a lasting "identity." In Part Two, the Interrogator is transformed, along with Jun Do. He, too wants to experience human connections. In the end, Jun Do executes his plan for freedom. And, the Biographer plans a "horrific" escape because, There's no way around it: to get a new life , you've got to trade in your old one.
I loved the symbols (canned peaches, tattoos, Casablanca DVD, one-way camera, receive-only radio, the national flowers). They helped set the scenes for the most poetic parts of the book.
However, the book's title bothered me. Was Jun Do really an orphan? I decided it didn't matter. Once the State cast you as an orphan, you were an orphan (unless given another acting job). Who was the Orphan Master? I thought that Kim Jon Il was the real Orphan Master because only he had the power to make any citizen an orphan by deed or declaration. He could remove parents from children, create paranoia and "poison" family connections. Parents could simply "disappear." Orphans were his best recruits. After all, the Dear Leader had 200 orphans (sons?), guarding him for a seven year mandatory service. In an Orwellian world, all citizens could be considered orphans. Citizens must pledge allegiance - honor, duty and loyalty - only to the State. Kim Jon Il is definitely the "Master"!
I hope after reading this book, you were able to answer Adam Johnson's central question: What does it mean to survive when you have nothing to live for?