Sunday, 4 May 2014

'An Appointment with his Brother' and Other Stories by Yi Mun-yol (Review)

As I mentioned in my recent post on Kim Young-ha, there's a lot of free (short) Korean fiction out there, and it's a good way to get a taste of a writer's work.  I'm taking that route again today, with five short pieces by an excellent contemporary writer, Yi Mun-yol, but first there are a couple of people to thank.  The first is Charles Montgomery, the host of the indispensable blog Korean Literature in Translation (always your first stop for sourcing some free stories).  The second?  Well, that's Brother Anthony of Taizé (An Sonjae) - translator extraordinaire, and the man responsible (as far as I'm aware) for bringing all of today's works into English :)

The first story, 'An Appointment with his Brother', would probably be my recommendation as a first step into the writer's fiction.  It's a short novella which follows a South Korean professor on a trip to an autonomous Korean region in China, right on the North Korean border.  His father moved to the North when he was a child, and a new acquaintance offers to arrange a secret meeting on the Chinese side of the border.  Sadly, by the time the arrangements have been made, the father has passed away, and the man Professor Lee eventually meets is none other than his younger half-brother...

Naturally, the two initially struggle to find common ground, despite their uncanny physical resemblance, but they eventually manage to let their guard down a little.  Eventually, they are able to make a trip to a nearby mountain, where they are able to bid farewell to their father properly, together.  It's a touching scene, a brief moment snatched from the realities of the Korean divide.

One of the fascinations of the story is the cultural divide that has sprung up between the North and the South, and it's not quite as an ignorant westerner would expect it to be.  Lee comes across as brash at times, looking down on his half-brother for having neglected certain customs, while the Northener is quick to take offence.  When he sees the alcohol and chestnuts the Southener has brought for the funeral rites, he is quick to point out that they have those things in the North too.

The writer (whose own father left for the North) also uses the story to talk about possible reunification.  In a conversation at the hotel, he addresses the practicalities of the idea:
"Well, what do you think of in connection with 'unification'?"
"The first thing I think of is how we can feed the twenty million hungry people, and how we can make North Korea even superficially resemble the South."
It's refreshing to see a discussion of the subject that doesn't revolve around war and nuclear bombs...

Moving on, I next read a few shorter pieces.  'Winter that Year' is a brief story where a man looks back at a time spent working at a country inn, a tale that looks at local government corruption and the lot of the Gisaeng (Korean Geisha).  'The Old Hatter', on the other hand, looks at the passing of traditional customs in the country, focusing on a hatmaker unable to adjust to modernisation.  It's a story with a sad ending, an allegory for what was lost in the great push towards modernity.

The third short piece is actually an extract from a novel.  In the first chapter of 'Son of Man', we are thrown into a murder mystery, where a local detective is investigating the murder of an unknown traveller.  I've heard good things about the novel, but this first chapter is rather prosaic and wouldn't really entice me into reading the whole thing.  If anyone out there has read the book, please let me know what the truth of the matter is ;)

My favourite piece, though, was another novella, called 'Garuda' (AKA 'The Golden Phoenix). It's the story of a master calligrapher on his death bed, a man looking back at his life in an attempt to weigh up its worth.  Much of the story is an attempt to come to terms with the fraught relationship he had with his own master, whose differing views on art led to conflict:
"Was their meeting truly doomed by evil fate, as Master Sokdam had said?  Even after accepting him as a pupil, their strange relationship had continued unchanged."
Despite our friend Kojuk's unique talent, Master Sokdam never truly accepts him as a real artist.  As Kojuk nears the end of his life, he begins to wonder if his mentor was right...

In addition to being an excellent story about a clash of strong wills, 'Garuda' also looks at the nature of artists and the way in which art demands sacrifice.  Kojuk is shown as a selfish, thoughtless man, abandoning his wife and children to roam the country displaying his talents - and abandoning himself to pleasure:
"What held him firmly captive in that time of profligacy and dissipation was the strange vicious circle between that awareness and the sense of futility.  Base pleasures stimulated his sense of futility, and the futility called forth further pleasure."
While he enjoys himself, reaping the rewards of years of painstaking practice, others (including his master) suffer the consequences of his neglect.

It's a beautifully-written story, and one which reminds me more than the others I've read of Japanese literature, possibly because of its focus on traditional arts and customs and the lack of any political edge.  'Garuda' (which is the name of a mythical golden-winged bird) shows us the impossibility of achieving perfection in art and the sacrifices which have to made in seeking it - a story well worth reading :)

Overall, then, I've greatly enjoyed my first taste of Yi Mun-yol's work, and I already have my next one lined up.  At some point, I hope to try his highly-regarded novel The Poet to see if his longer work is as good as his shorter pieces.  Yes, the year of K-Lit will continue very soon ;)