Korean Literature
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Korean Literature

“North Korea from the shore of the river, weeping” — Review of Yi Mun-Yol’s ‘An Appointment with My Brother’

Father’s death itself was hearsay” writes Yi Mun-yol, “and it was only then that I felt the need to meet my brother.”

Korea is a country of eldest sons. The inheritors not of prestige and bloodlines, but of unpleasant, agonising responsibility. Well beyond the natural burdens of raising younger siblings and dealing with the paranoia of new parents, here it is a life of endless ritual, the nurturing of the family name, the legal requirement (literally) to care for aging relatives, and then even in death, the manicured upkeep of family graves.

There is so much hassle and baggage attached to this accident of birth, that it is often the first question asked by interested young women on tentative dates; a positive response bringing an end to the romance with the same speed and disgust of a positive herpes test.

So with exhaustion and ceremony on his mind our eldest son sets-off, all the while counting, building mental lists of his obligations, the gifts he must purchase, the rituals he must perform. And that is where the mundane and performance ends here — instead Yi has torn into the psychological heart of blood and belonging… of what ‘family’ is, and what it is not.

Divided by the 250 kilometre long, 4 kilometre wide strip of barbed wire, landmines, fortifications, and nervous stares, it is still possible for separated Koreans (North and South) to meet. In fact, other than the slightly prohibitive cost — and the nagging worry about whether everyone who needed a bribe actually got one — it is a rather trivial affair these days.

It all has to happen in China of course, and on any given night the border towns are thick with family reunions. They all tend to look the same: aged brothers and sisters torn apart by war and the politics of decolonisation; or Northern defectors heading back to visit the people left behind. A much rarer version of this story involves defections from South to North and the remnant offspring on each side; both inheritors of an unpleasant and unshakable stigma:

Mother never mentioned Father again ever since she learned, in the mid-eighties, that Father had five children from his second marriage in the North. Such fertility of Father’s must have felt like a betrayal to her who, after she was left behind at age thirty-three by Father’s defection, preserved her chastity without a single blemish to her honor and devoted herself solely to raising us three children.

As flavours of stigma go, this is certainly powerful, unpleasant, stomach churning, ulcer inducing… But there is a national element here too, a question of who are the true inheritors of history and culture, of which government and society is the more legitimate, and of how much the family of a defector can be trusted. Especially when they have daydreams like these:

In my childhood, whenever there was news of unrest along the armistice line, I imagined my Father leading an army into the south, mounted high on a white horse… I simply believed that the reason my Father’s name was absent from the top 100 North Korean politicians was the unreliability of the news source and nothing else.

Amongst the ordinary political reasons for his father’s name not being on that list, the most obvious is what fills-in the northern half of this tragedy. A South Korean who organises pro-North rallies, who agitates for revolution and reunification, who fights for the invading armies of Kim Il-sung, and who abandons his family to defect with those same retreating soldiers, is still, despite it all, a South Korean. An impurity, someone with dual loyalties. Some stigmas run a little deeper, are a little more life-shaping than others.

There is a lot of intra-Korean politics here, and a lot of glossy talk about reunification. And that’s the point! This story of long lost brothers, is also that of sisters, parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, and spouses. It is the story of a lost nation. But sensibly Yi leaves most of that to the ensemble, the fringe characters; all those South Koreans — part of the same ‘tour’ group — all gazing across from river banks and mountain slopes (“an ancient territory of Baekje”), staring hungrily at what was once ‘theirs’:

When I beheld the land of North Korea across the Tumen River, I felt an urge to drink, and after getting drunk I became sentimental and made bows towards North Korea from the shore of the river, weeping.

Through all this heat and emotion and yearning and nail scratching discomfort, our South Korean brother offers the reader something strange. He walks along the pages with a deliberate, numbed, calm; reminiscent of the emotionally-attached nihilism in the novels of Michel Houellebecq. Firmly committed to simply getting past each moment, step-by-step through difficulty and sea sick emotion, we are never left behind to wallow too long, and the language never imposes itself on us with over-description.

Instead the tension sits as obvious as a loaded gun to the head, all the while our brother goes about his day in small details: eating here…, walking there…, watching this…, talking to them…, remembering that…, offering this…, bowing to him…

Just how Yi has managed to do this so well, without leaving behind empty spaces in the narrative is perhaps something only he and Houellebecq knows, but it circles around and slowly, inconspicuously, the reader’s own pain is drip-fed into the characters. With the irony and symbolism stripped back, there is no bloating or sag to the prose or pacing, no unnecessary language at all… well almost!

Time to mention the role of the translator. And with An Appointment with My Brother, there are two! First was Suh Ji-moon, and then later Yi decided upon a rework, a touch-up for English speakers, and a new employee. This time around Heinz Insu Fenkl got the job, and the changes he makes, well… they sag!

With a thesaurus in hand and all the shame of a desperate student approaching a deadline, Fenkl walks through Suh’s writing, tweaking just enough language to make each sentence his own. “He arrived” becomes “He got in’’, “He’s going to sleep over” becomes “He’s going to stay at”, and so on. Even the title is smudged from An Appointment with My Brother to A Meeting with My Brother. Beyond making things just different enough to pass the plagiarism sensors, I challenge anyone to find these changes significant enough to warrant a rewrite, or even capable of passing Fenkl’s own standard of being more appealing to Western ears.

That any of it was considered necessary, comes from Yi as an underestimation of his Western audience’s capacity for nuance, and from Fenkl as an underestimation of everyone’s (Korean and Western alike) intelligence. The core of the actual new material is a six page internal ramble about the history of the Korean War, and a scattering of unnecessary, and overly explained, afterthoughts like this:

When morning comes, I will finally meet my brother whose face I have not seen, who is one of the closest blood ties I have in this world. What does he look like? How was he raised? What is he like? How did the children fare growing up with a father, unlike the three of us?

Without the added droop and second-guessing, Suh’s translation forces us to live — rather than to just read about — the “in born antagonism that exists between half-brothers” and halved nations. What can possibly be said, even in the kindest of terms and best of intentions, that isn’t also laced with poisonous comparison… and the taste of insult? The most sympathetic of questions are dirtied with patronisation and superiority, the most perfunctory are hierarchical and belittling. Your family and your memories are an offence to his, the life you have an act of violence against his Korea.

Along the way a fellow traveller from South Korea to the Chinese border leans over, grabs a hold of our distracted brother, and reignites a worn and whispered lecture about North-led reunification: “the greatest risk point of the unified Korea becoming communized will come three years after unification. By that time, many South Koreans would fall below the poverty line, as the South Korean economy would have been depleted on account of unification expenses.”

And here the tableau remains frozen, with 75 million walking, talking cases of split personality disorder, all dreaming aloud about a bright future of cohabitation, about the great promise of renewing old vows and diving back into a second marriage to the same old spouse. And yet no one wanting any of it to be expensive, painful, or even the slightest bit inconvenient.

Perhaps the best, and only, thing you can do is mourn shared relatives, and dig your nails firmly into tradition, ceremony, and a little bit of indulgent fantasy. And then stare into the face of a departing brother (who you have only just met), and say this about the mother and family that replaced yours all those years ago [emphasis added]: “please give my love to my sister and my nephews and nieces. And to our mother, too.”

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