The dictator is not named and does not appear directly in the story, but his presence is felt everywhere. His photograph appears all the time in the newspapers during the 1950s; at that time, he is “the only superstar in the media,” and the townspeople refer to him as “Our Father, Our Savior, the North Star of Our Lives, the Never Falling Sun of Our Era.” Since they regard him as a surrogate father, they weep like orphans at his death. Underneath their adulation of this pseudo-divine figure, however, lies a “hidden hatred” that they dare not acknowledge.
The impersonator is a young man whose face resembles the face of the dictator. The resemblance is so uncanny that even as a boy he leads quite a privileged life. At school, the teachers never rebuke him, and in the team games the children play, the side without him is always willing to lose. After he leaves school, he is given a title as director of the advisory board to the Revolution Committee, but this is a fake job that involves no work at all. A year after the dictator dies, the young man is taken to the capital city where he auditions as the dictator’s impersonator. He is successful and travels the country, impersonating the dictator at national celebrations. He also appears in movies as the dictator. In this role, he is adored by the masses. People want to shake his hand and get his autograph, pretty young women rush up to him with bouquets of flowers, and enthusiastic children swarm around him. When he is in his forties, however, he becomes tormented by the fact that he has never married and never even made love to a woman. He has rejected many women who would have married him because he did not think they were worthy of him, since he has come to consider himself a great man. Eventually, he falls prey to lust, buying pornographic magazines and soliciting a prostitute in a bar, only to be blackmailed by the woman’s pimp. He is fired from his job as impersonator, and even though he begs for another chance, his career is over. He returns to his hometown and castrates himself by his mother’s tomb. At the end of the story, he cuts a pathetic figure: “He sits in the sun and watches the dogs chasing one another, his face hidden behind dark glasses and the high collar of his coat.” In the evenings, he goes to the cemetery and talks to his mother.
The impersonator’s father is a young carpenter. He marries at the time when the dictator first comes to power. This would be in 1949, when the communists triumphed in the civil war. The carpenter is described as “a hardworking man, nice to his neighbors, good to his wife.” However, he meets a tragic fate. One evening he is a little drunk and makes a joke about the dictator’s policy of describing women who have given birth to a certain number of babies as mother heroes. This is considered an attack on the dictator’s population policy, and the carpenter is tried and executed. His son is born on the day of his death.
The impersonator’s mother is an illiterate eighteen-year-old girl. When she is pregnant, she frequently gazes at the face of the dictator in newspaper photographs; as a result, so she believes, her son’s face resembles that of the dictator. After the execution of her husband, she is given a job as a street sweeper. Although she is beautiful, none of the young men in the town offers to marry her, since she is stigmatized as the widow of a counterrevolutionary. She ages rapidly in her appearance. By the time her son is ten years old, she looks like a woman of sixty. But she is fiercely protective of her son and rescues him from the mob that attacks him. She is proud of him when he is taken away to the capital city to become an impersonator and takes credit for the fact that he looks like the dictator. She enjoys telling the townspeople stories of his new life; she also does her best to persuade him to marry one of the local girls, telling him that he needs a son. When word of the scandal about her son’s visit to a prostitute reaches her, she is stricken by shame, falls ill, and dies.
The narrator is the collective voice of the town, persisting over many generations, and referred to in the first person plural as “we.” The townspeople are simple folk who cling to their old traditions at the same time as they embrace the new ideology of communism. They regard the Great Papas of the past as heroes and think of the dictator’s impersonator as a hero, too, even after he disgraces himself. In their eyes, he is the greatest man in their history. The townspeople are not educated, and they have little power to think for themselves. They are obedient to authority, and they respond not as individuals but as a group. For the most part, they are tools in the hands of the dictator and the Communist Party. They are naive and appear to know little about the world beyond the borders of their town.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Yiyun Li, Published by Gale Group, 2006