Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Divided Families: Yi Mun-Yol's Meeting with My Brother

by Kay Sexton


Yi Mun-Yol (author), Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang (translators), Meeting with My Brother: A Novella, Columbia University Press, 2017. 120 pages.


As with all novellas, this is a quick read but unlike some, it's not a simple one. In fact, I had to read it twice, not just to penetrate the deceptive simplicity of the narrative but also because the world changed dramatically—on my first reading all was (relatively speaking) well, but by the second reading the USA and North Korea were engaged in a posturing stand-off that gave every word of Yi Man Yol's novella a sharper edge. 

On the surface, this is a simple story of a family divided by war and ideology but inside that archetype—which echoes through so many narratives: Cain and Abel, Al-Walid versus Sulayman, Liam and Noel Gallagher—there is a much less straightforward account of opposition and competition.

The pervading mood of the narrative is unease and anxiety. The Professor Yi of the story says, in the first few pages that he feels he is "entering into some criminal conspiracy." Rules and legality or illegality are mentioned eight times in the novella—a weighty focus that regularly pulls the narrative down to a judicial examination of the exact extent to which Professor Yi and his as-yet-unseen half-brother Yi Hyoek are breaking their country's respective laws. This recurring motif punctuates their encounters but also weaves its way through every aspect of the novella from Professor Yi's conversation with a Chinese Korean woman who worked as a brothel keeper in Seoul to the Businessman and Mr. Reunification, who are each transgressing in their own way.

If there is a moral to this story, it could be said to be "seek profit from your law-breaking" for it is the former brothel keeper and the Businessman who seem to have some success, although only a modicum, while Mr. Reunification literally gets the table turned on him, and Professor Yi fails to meet the father for whom he has taken such a high degree of risk. He does, however, eventually, meet his half-brother whose view of South Korea both challenges Professor Yi and confirms his own jaundiced view of where "living in servitude to the Americans" has led his nation, and himself. 

The simple polarities of good/bad, rich/poor, happy/unhappy are shaped and reshaped throughout the narrative, and the primary emotions experienced by people on either side of the border seem to be exhaustion and nagging uncertainty. Professor Yi's first three responses to his world are tiredness, cold-heartedness and lack of interest. It seems that life in both Koreas saps the ability to enjoy anything, and towards the end of the book, when Professor Yi encounters his half-brother for the second time, a torrent of disappointment, rather than reconciliation ensues. Although his younger brother does eventually reveal the reality of life in North Korea, "hate, lots of heartache, lots of regret" and describes his father's family in the South as "an invisible curse—a disaster …" Professor Yi doesn't let his mask of indifference slip. He never tells is half-brother of the reality of the South, "economic threats … borrow money to eat well and spend while you can," or his feelings about his father's choice to go North, "even if, in the end, he closed his eyes with satisfaction, I have the right to declare his life a failure and cry for him …" As a result, or rather, as a culmination of the facts he gathers, Professor Yi can neither change, or accept, his situation. In the final scene of the novella, he finds himself at the airport, preparing to fly home, and almost unconsciously helping the Businessman perpetuate an international art fraud. 

In both individual and collective action, South Korea is seen as exploiting and fearing its northern neighbour—the "other brother" and in both personal and political senses, the only gains Professor Yi can see from this approach are monetary—everything else is as hollow and makeshift as the cardboard tubes he is about to carry through customs for the Businessman. The treasures of disunited Korea, in this novella, are wrapped in flimsy rhetoric, passed around, and sold to the highest bidder.

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