Book review: Yi Mun-yol — Our Twisted Hero

by Philip Gowman on 19 October, 2012

in 1960-1993, Book Reviews, Korean literature in translation

Yi Mun-yol: Our Twisted HeroYi Mun-yol: Our Twisted Hero
Originally published 1987
Translated by Kevin O’Rourke
Available on Kindle (Minumsa, 2012) or hard copy (Hyperion Books, 2001)
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Moving to the provinces from a school in Seoul in which the social hierarchy was one he had lived with all his life, our twelve-year-old hero Han Pyongt’ae is faced with a new social order – one in which the teachers are less impressive than in Seoul and in which the classroom is governed by a completely different system. Instead of a regime in which the class monitor is no more than a messenger between students and teacher, in this provincial school the class monitor keeps order in the class, ruling by way of a dictatorship. But despite certain abuses of power by the monitor Om Sokdae, no-one really suffers great hardship: instead, the class prospers and stands out for its overall performance, academic and otherwise. The Seoulite seeks to resist this new hierarchy without success – and why he isn’t beaten to a pulp on his first day at the new school isn’t really explained. Eventually, after months of ostracism and loneliness, Pyongt’ae decides to submit to Sokdae’s regime, and finds that he prospers much better when part of the system than outside it.

When a new teacher deposes the tyrant, the hierarchy is replaced by a fractious committee system in which the class’s progress is held back by petty squabbles.

The critique of Korea’s long dictatorship, in which so much economic success is achieved, but at the cost of social injustice, is obvious. From Sokdae’s enjoyment of private bawdy musical entertainments1, to his subjects’ “voluntary” offerings of goods and services2 there are plenty of references to life in Korea under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan.

It would be tempting also to read into the book a criticism of Korea’s post-democratisation governments, but this is not possible given the timing of book’s publication in the run-up to the 1987 elections in which a successor to Chun Doo-hwan was to be elected. Instead, the critique of the world post-Sokdae can only be inspired, if at all, by the split in the democratic opposition during the election campaigns, or by the ineffectiveness of the short-lived regime that existed between Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee in 1960 and 1961.3

The transition from dictatorship to democracy by the deposition of the class monitor Om Sokdae is only made possible by the agency of a new teacher who punishes the oppressors and oppressed alike. The former teacher acquiesced in the system as it seemed to be beneficial, while the new teacher overturns the order, indignant that the class bully had been swapping exam papers with the class swots to make sure he was always top of the class.

If the classroom politics in Pyongt’ae’s school can be read as a microcosm of South Korea, this leaves the problem of how, if at all, to read the much broader framework within which Pyongt’ae’s classroom exists. The school itself, and in particular the individual teachers, has the power to change the way the class is run, but may chose not to. It is perhaps tempting to read this overarching framework as American imperialism which is taken to have condoned the oppressive policies of the Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan era. But maybe this is reading too much into the allegory.

The brief novella, made into a film by Park Jongwon in 1992, is well translated but the language sometimes feels awkward. There is often a preference for nouns where pronouns would be more natural in English, which makes you aware of the prose style rather than the content.4

Overall, Our Twisted Hero is rather a chore to read, though it is interesting for its balanced assessment of the rights and wrongs of Korea’s developmental dictatorship. But political allegory gets in the way of character delineation, with the result that you feel no sympathy with any of the protagonists; and even reading it as allegory you wonder how far to push the real-world parallels. Thinking back to my first encounter with Yi Mun-yol in translation, The Poet, I found the latter much more natural and enjoyable. I shall return to my hard copy of that in the future, while Our Twisted Hero will suffer the uncertain fate of being archived from my Kindle.

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  1. Sokdae takes his chums to a disused factory building where he watches them perform Que Sera Sera, one of the boys playing his own penis like a haegeum. []
  2. “I can’t remember clearly whether Sokdae wanted this or whether I made the offer. My guess is that, as a subject, residing peacefully in his kingdom, I made the offer spontaneously in lieu of tax or labor service,” says Pyongt’ae when trying to recall how he ended up giving Sokdae his art homework. []
  3. As the book is set near the time of the April 19 Revolution, perhaps the latter parallel is intended. []
  4. For example:

    I had been watching Sokdae carefully from the beginning. I tensed suddenly at this new development. From my experience in watching Sokdae, I knew that when he said this, he mean something different than people usually mean. When Sokdae wanted something belonging to one of the others, his “Yah, it’s lovely” meant he was asking for it. Usually this was enough for the item to be handed over. But sometimes a boy might hold out a but and them Sokdae would say, “Lend it to me.”

    (Emphasis added). “He” or “him” would be more natural in English than the repetition of the boy’s name. []

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Charles Montgomery October 20, 2012 at 5:05 am

Finally, we disagree on something!

I liked The Poet, but found it a book that would likely only appeal to highbrow folks like you and me. In fact I should say I’ve liked all of the work of Yi Munyol that I’ve read in translation – a thing that can be awkward because his politics and a period of his life dedicated to making money on translations makes him sometimes unpopular with the intelligentsia in Korea.

But I found Our Twisted Hero to be accessible both as a story of ‘simple’ school politics and as a political parable. I’d teach it in elementary or high schools. I think you are right in concluding that it is too far to go to say that Yi is including the role of the US in this book, and I think you are also correct that his criticisms of the democratic movement are relatively limited in time scope (LOL, obviously I don’t think he was trying to be a seer). I took his point to be that the kind of dictatorship that Sokdae (and Park and the Kims up north) enforce have a disabling and distorting effect on what follows, no matter how good the intentions, and also that ‘democratic’ belief in and of itself is not necessarily a promise that good will be done, or even attempted.

To see yet another side of Yi’s work, I highly recommend “Twofold Song.” Totally different.

Philip Gowman October 20, 2012 at 10:02 am

Hi Charles

I just watched Im Kwon-taek’s Village in the Mist last night at the big retrospective that’s happening in London, which is based on Yi Mun-yol’s An Anonymous Island. Now that’s one I’d really like to track down, but sadly as far as I can see it’s only available to subscribers to the New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2011/09/12/110912fi_fiction_yi) .

As for Twisted Hero, yes it’s accessible, but it just didn’t grab me as something I’d want to read again. But it has the benefit of being short.

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