Review: Yi Mun-yol’s (이문열) “Pilon’s Pig” (필론의 돼지) is a keeper^^

Pilon's Pig CoverYi Mun-yol is, perhaps, one of Korea’s most under-rated writers, not because his writing is unknown, but because he has spent a large portion of his literary career out of step with the political winds of his time. And so it is in his short story, Pilon’s Pig. Pilon’s Pig is a short story that, as many of Yi’s stories, is both about a real moment in fiction, and a political allegory.

And Pilon’s Pig is awesome (if I may indulge in a technical term^^).

Before discussing Pilon’s Pig it is worthwhile to make a quick note of Yi’s personal history and political stances, because they affect both his writing and his reception as a writer.

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.” This early status as an outsider was to colour Yi’s work, particularly his novelization of the life of the similar outcast Kim Sakkat (in The Poet), Our Twisted Hero, and here in Pilon’s Pig.

It is a credit to this particular series of books that in one of the three afterwords (summary, critical response, and author’s history), it is not shy at all in discussing Yi’s politics and how it has affected his career. This is the most candid and complete discussion of it that I have ever seen, and that’s an awesome change from previous publications in which his personal history was hinted at or briefly discussed, but its results hushed up. A nice change!

In real life it’s the story of a moment in time. Our narrator Lee is getting out of the Army and is well sick of it. So sick, in fact that he decides that he will not ride home on the troop-train, rather he will spend his own hard-earned money to ride home as a commercial customer. Unfortunately he ends up drinking too much of his money away, and he ends up on the troop train with a motley crew of soldiers who are being mustered out.

When a group of elite troops enters the train and has one of their group sing for “donations” (which are in fact extortions) a short drama ensues about power, the cowardice of both power and powerlessness, and what happens then the powerful are exchanged with the powerless.

Which brings us back to that pig.

When on the train, Lee meets an old frenemy,  Hong Dong-deok, otherwise known as Hong “Dunghead,” who was a legendary incompetent when Lee served with him. Bizarrely, as power relations on the train car ebb and flow, it is the drunken Hong who seems to fare best, because he doesn’t really react to anything.

And this brings us to the classical tale of Pyrrho’s Pig (the title is a perfectly awful rendition of that into Korean). The Dummies Guide to Philosophy explains Pyrrho and his pig this way:

The first great skeptical philosopher of the ancient world was Pyrrho of Elis (circa 310–270 B.C.). He was known for presenting philosophy as a way of life that aims at a calmness of the spirit and happiness of the heart.

Pyrrho 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.

Some stories from the ancient world portray Pyrrho as far too calm, and even indifferent, concerning dangers in his daily environment. We are told that his friends were constantly saving his life, pulling him from the paths of speeding carts, from the edges of cliffs, and from other dangers.

(Pyrrho) was on board a ship during a violent storm, but showed no fear. His terrified fellow passengers asked how he remained calm. We are told that, in the midst of the storm, he pointed to a little pig on deck calmly eating his food, and said that this is the unperturbed way a wise man should live in all situations.

And this, is the kind of questionable hero Hong “Dunderhead” is, unperturbed if not wise. Lee, on the other hand, like Han Pyongtae in Our Twisted Hero, is an intellectual over-thinker, who is impotent and angry.

Which means that this story, as most of Yi’s work, can be read on the level of incident; what happens when good guys meet bad guys, when power meets weakness, when weakness overcomes power, or; as a story commenting on Korean politics. The implied comparison here is to the eviction of the Korean dictatorial government and its replacement with a democratic one “of the people.” Yi, subversively, suggests that one may not be that much better than the other, rather it may just replace one kind of abusive power with another.

At the time this kind of approach was quite radical, and it really still is.

So, Pilon’s Pig is a great story that can be read purely for its narrative beauty (other than the title, the translation is very readable), as a philosophical examination of power, weakness and intellectual versus non-intellectual responses, or as a tricky and countercultural analysis of modern Korean politics.

This is among the “must read” category of the BEMFL volumes, and I strongly suggest that a reader take a look at the end of the book and read Yi’s short biography before reading the story, as the biography shed valuable light on the story itself.

A measly 6,000 won, or 5 bucks US.^^