Korean author Yi Mun-Yol on Allegory and Naked North Korean Writing

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Yi Mun-yolYi Mun-yol has always been one of my favorite South Korea writers (Admission – I achieved a rather high state of drunkenness with him, which always makes me like a fellow) so I was glad to see this bit of coverage on him from Publishing Perspectives, Yi Mun-Yol on Allegory and Naked North Korean Writing. Even more glad when it touched on one of the things that makes Yi interesting both as a writer and as a person – that he lived under a cloud of suspicion because his father defected to the North.

As noted in a review of his Pilon’s Pig here at KTLit, Yi’s father was a communist sympathizer who defected to the North, and in the political climate of the day that meant Yi was a marked boy. As the afterword notes, Yi lived “the weary life of as the son of a political offender,” and was “passed around among relatives who lived in various cities.”

TYi’s work has always focused on themes exploring the relationship between power and the individual and his work is generally in the form of a fable/allegory. Yi is essentially pessimistic, one of the few South Korean authors who even comes close to arguing that ANY form of power is problematic (a brave stance when one considers he is comparing Korea’s recent dictatorships to its recent democracies) and this stance is often drawn from his personal experience.

The money quotes are:

Our Twisted Hero and The Poet are both covered with a layer of fiction; I smoothed over the stories I wanted to tell. Historical fiction is the literary mechanism to mask an autobiographical account. I thought this would move people in a different way rather than telling it literally. It becomes a collective story,” said Yi Mun-yol.

In Our Twisted Hero, the author discussed systems of power, which described the situation in South Korea when it was under military dictatorship in the mid-1980s, and the dilemma of an intellectual who is put in a position of having to cooperate with the authority.

“The rich function of allegory is something I appreciate very much, and it is very helpful for me to express my personal life and ideas this way. Given the repression at the time it was useful. Now we are not so restricted and we can use social realism as well,” said Yi Mun-yol, adding that he was one of the few Korean authors to use allegory, which is not a technique that is necessarily popular any more today.

But the whole thing is worth checking out…

Yi’s works that include allegories or histories in English include:

The Poet  – the story of poet Kim Sakkat, who suffered a historical familial stain similar to that of Yi, It’s narrator is (semi self-) doomed to a life of vagrancy and begging as a wandering poet both by an ancestor’s act of betrayal, and poet’s own betrayal of the memory of that ancestor

An Appointment with my Brother – The story of a brother from South Korea meeting his brother from the North, which is often quite subtle, suggesting judgement is problematic (almost always a theme of Yi’s).

Our Twisted Hero – a story of the uses and misuses of power, which it amuses Yi is read simply as a story of childhood bullying by most English language readers. Also available in Kindle format.

Pilon’s Pig – another allegorical story based on the works of the philosopher Pyrrho who (from the Wikipedia here) believed that people should always be quick to question and slow to believe. He seemed to think that we too easily become convinced of things that trouble our minds and disturb our souls. So he practiced, and preached, withholding judgment as much as possible.

Hail to the Emperor – which the Encyclopedia Brittanica (I have not yet read it) describes as:  Hwagje-rŭl wihayŏ (1982; Hail to the Emperor!), a jeu d’esprit, is a rambunctious satire on imperial delusions that showcases the author’s incredible erudition. (NOTE: A tip of the hat to reader Young-Jun Lee, who caught an error in this section that I have since corrected)

Twofold Song – an amazingly modernist love story which I have to re-read, because I can’t remember if it’s also a break-up story.^^

And Anonymous Island – Published in the in New Yorker but  which can be read for free at LIST Magazine (Link Rotted).

Anyway, KTLit says check this short but entertaining column out!



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