Interestingly, Australia was threatened by North Korea this week. By toeing the line with US foreign policy, the North Korean foreign ministry is reported to have warned that Australia is ‘coming within the range of the nuclear strike of the strategic force of the DPRK’. In its own right that’s pretty interesting, if not downright alarming, but it’s especially interesting for me as I just finished reading Meeting With My Brother by Yi Mun-yol – a literal and allegorical novella about North and South Korea.
The Vegetarian, which I read last year, was my first Korean novel ever. I don’t know how I made it this far in life with so little exposure to Korean literature, especially since I have a degree in Asian Studies! But after a short period of chastisement I set about changing this, requesting a review copy of Meeting With My Brother. The timing couldn’t have been better.
Meeting With My Brother breathes life into the stories we’ve read and the images we’ve seen of North and South Korean families being reunited after decades of separation, as well as shedding light on the deep ideological rifts still obviously at play in this divided nation.
It’s written from the perspective of a South Korean professor, Yi, whose father abandoned him and his family and defected to North Korea when Yi was nine years old. Now middle-aged, Yi finally puts aside his resentment and decides to try and find his dad. As you’d expect, Yi has to employ a degree of subterfuge to make this happen, travelling to the southern part of China near the North Korean border on a flimsy pretext. The Chinese-Korean man Yi hires to find his father fails (‘By the time I found out where your father was, after digging all over North Korea, it was already two weeks after his funeral’), and instead locates Yi’s half-brother.
This central event in the novella – the meeting between Yi and his half-brother ‘who grew up and was educated in a completely different culture and environment for close to forty years’ – is the perfect way to explore the divisions between the two nations, the strength of familial bonds, as well as the communist/ capitalist struggle. These are indisputably heavy themes. But Yi Mun-yol manages to blend the characters’ thoughts and emotions with broader political points in a very readable way. The brothers’ first meeting captures this perfectly:
His face was very familiar, reminiscent of my father’s… but he also looked like my younger brother who was still nursing when Father left, who grew up without him and died tragically before the age of forty. My half bother’s proportions were like those of my eldest son… The only odd thing about my half-brother was his suit, which looked like South Korean high fashion from the seventies.
I actually can’t imagine a meeting that could be more emotionally fraught. As they talk, the brothers need to navigate deep political suspicion (‘from what I’ve heard brother, you people in the South have practically turned into Yankees’), as well as personal hostility (‘you appear out of nowhere, and it seems to me that you’re strutting around like you’re the only real son’), different religious observances (‘it seemed that the rituals in the North were more like Christian ceremonies and not like the traditional Confucian ceremonies we had in the South’) as well as opposing systems of government (‘I felt suddenly compelled to champion that system, as if I were a representative at a South-North Summit’).
That is a lot of baggage, no matter how you define it! Yet it all hangs together beautifully.
Sitting alongside the brothers’ voyage, personal vignettes from minor characters pepper the book, illustrating contradictory frustrations about the divided countries. A cafe owner laments, ‘we’re one people who share the same blood, no matter how long we’ve been apart’ but another character states ‘could you expect anything more than conflict when you put two different cultures together?’. A better understanding of Korean history and politics would’ve helped me get more out of these other characters, especially ‘Mr Reunification’ and the ‘businessman’ who are used to explore the deeper complexities of reunification (what would happen to North Korea’s natural resources? Would the overall standard of living drop?). I got some of it, but not all of it. But I guess you have to start somewhere.
The overall tone of Meeting With My Brother is quite formal and stilted (but as with all translations, it’s hard to know if it’s the translator’s or the author’s style). However it wasn’t a huge issue for me; it suited this grave subject matter.
And the situation is grave. It’s more that 60 years since the Korean war, but the geo-political posturing continues. Today, North Korea warned that it’s ready to sink a US aircraft carrier heading towards the peninsula. Although first published in Korean in 1994, Meeting with My Brother is still as relevant in 2017. Importantly, this book gives you what headlines and political machismo can’t – a sense of what’s at stake for individuals, and why it all matters.
I received a review copy of Meeting With My Brother from Columbia University Press in exchange for an honest review.