The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 13 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul
UPDATE – I have been contacted by the folks at Azalea Journal who are eager to have you know that they are publishing an entirely new version of this work, translated by the estimable Heinz Insu Fenkl. The book reviewed here is NOT the new edition!
Yi Mun-yol’s An Appointment with My Brother is a full-fledged political lecture wrapped in the garb of a short novel. Yi makes no effort to hide the fact that the central discussion is, in many ways, a minor part of the formal plot, although it is also quite clearly the important part of the novel. It is to Yi’s credit that he personalizes his protagonists so well that, even as they (The two step-brothers as well as a businessman who appears in the novel) argue what is essentially predictive political theory, both the story and the argument seem lively and important.
The plot is fairly mechanical. The narrator meets with his stepbrother, a child from their father’s second marriage. The father’s second marriage occurred after he defected from South to North Korea. This plot is reminiscent of Yi’s own life, which was substantially complicated, both economically and politically, by the fact that his father defected to North Korea. The meeting takes place in China and the meeting is between stepbrothers because their father, whom the narrator had initially hoped to meet, has died.
The meeting between separated brothers is an old trope in Korean modern literature, “In Korean popular discourse, the division of the peninsula into two separate nations after the Korean War is often symbolized as two brothers who, in the shadow of their parents’ death, are tragically separated across an artificially imposed national line.” (Wood 129) Presaged by political discussions between the narrator and, successively a businessman and a professor, when the two brothers meet the conversation becomes a nationalistic one with each brother retreating to the platitudes of his homeland. This leads to some fairly crackling interactions, including one of my favorite passages:
I heard that the traitorous plutocrats have millions of square meters of land, and that all the scenic places are taken up by their deluxe villas where they cavort with young whores.
That’s some funny writing and also does a good job of relaying the overblown oratory-style the North Koreans sometimes use when discussing the South at the same time it limns the lack of sophistication of the North Korean brother. Other characters have similarly vivid personalities and Yi does an excellent job of weaving them in and out of the story.
The brothers struggle to find common ground and in a very “Korean” scene, their differences are bridged by drinking soju, and the brothers perform a joint memorial service for their father. Nationalist sentiments never quite quit intruding, there is an amusing scene in which the brothers argue over the meaning of their offerings to their father, but in the end familial unity is restored and a sort of judgment seems to be reached, when the Northern brother accepts a gift of cash from the Southern one. This action also echoes one of the ongoing political themes of the novel, that re-unification may end up being an economically costly process. That is only one of the political/economic options the book explores with respect to re-unification, and it is one of the minor miracles of the book that Yi makes all the options/predictions stand on their own two legs; in most cases he is quite good at leaving judgments out of his text.
This is a suprisingly light and entertaining read.