LBF sketch: Yi Mun-yol on fable and allegory in his work

Yi Mun-yol spoke at three London Book Fair events: on Korean Literature Past and Present at the British Library on 8 April; on Allegory and the Literary Imagination on 9 April; and in conversation with Claire Armitstead on 10 April. The below is a digest of those appearances.

Yi Mun-yol with Grace Koh (l), interpreter Cho Yuna and Brother Anthony (R)
Yi Mun-yol with Grace Koh (L), interpreter Cho Yuna and Brother Anthony (R) at the British Library on 8 April

Grace Koh: Yi Mun-yol’s debut was Son of Man (1979) focusing on abuse of political power. Both Hail to the Emperor, and The Poet are set in the Joseon Dynasty: why did you write historical novels?

  • History repeats itself. There is nothing new under heaven.
  • I wanted to talk about current things in the context of the past.
  • The Poet reflected my own personal pain at having my father’s “crime” vested on me. I didn’t want to make it too obvious that I was talking about that subject.

Brother Anthony: the joy of The Poet is that it doesn’t have all those dated references which make Toji so difficult to translate (technical terms for parts of the house, titles of officials etc)

  • For me, the guilt by association law, where a child is guilty for the crimes of his father – was still in force when I grew up. My father was a member of the communist party and escaped to the DPRK, leaving his family behind. It was a burden on all of us. It limited our dreams for the future. I couldn’t be a policeman, lawyer or government official. I couldn’t travel by air. It was like an oppression laid upon me. It played an important part in many of my novels – maybe a third or a half of my output.
  • The Poet is based on those experiences. Kim Sakkat is a historical figure from 200 years ago, whose grandfather aided a traitor. Because he couldn’t become a government official, he became a wandering poet. My situation led me to a literary career. It is a historical novel, but has many interpretations.
Yi Mun-yol with Marina Warner and his British publisher
Yi Mun-yol with Marina Warner and his British publisher, 9 April

Marina Warner: Can you expand on the concept of allegory in your work? On the surface there is one story, but hidden inside is another story.

  • The Poet is my own story, but I didn’t want to write an autobiography. Fiction is a layer smoothed over the story I wanted to tell, and it becomes a collective story for all people. I wanted to tell my literary coming of age via the story of Kim Sakkat. His life story is manufactured, but believable. For example, he tries to achieve worldly success by hanging out with a rich family. He didn’t do this in real life.
  • If Our Twisted Hero had been realist, it would not have seen the light of day. The novel is an allegory of Korean society in the 1980s, in which there was both Government and self-imposed censorship. So I had to use allegory to tell my story. It drew so much from allegory that it wasn’t taken seriously. The norm at the time was social realism. In American schools it’s used as a story about bullying, also in Korea and Italy. For me it’s a story about the misuse of power.

Marina Warner: It has an Orwellian feel. How was it received?

  • The background is that in those days an intellectual had to cooperate with authority.
  • Under the Fifth Republic (which was ushered in when Chun Doo-hwan came to power in 1980) there was a public commitment that the president would only serve one term. Then in 1986 they went back on their commitment and amended the constitution. For intellectuals, there was the understanding that if they stayed quiet, they wouldn’t be punished.
Yi Mun-yol answers questions on 9 April
Yi Mun-yol answers questions on 9 April

Marina Warner: Can you talk about the use of parables and fable in Korean literature more broadly?

  • In Korea there is a tradition of fable, but in modern Korean literature the technique of allegory is not favoured.

Marina Warner: Is allegory a term of denigration?

  • The technique of allegory is useful. Social realism couldn’t grow at that time.
  • The best-selling books in Korea are now translated foreign fiction. It’s embarrassing.

Marina Warner: Can we talk about the metaphysical in Son of Man, and about North Korea literature?

  • I drew inspiration from the figure of the Wandering Jew when writing Son of Man.
  • Books from the DPRK today are like books from 50 years ago
  • I run a book group which includes North Korean writers. Even outside the DPRK they can’t write freely. It’s ironic: South Korean readers aren’t interested in what they write and feel the North Korean writers are making too much noise. But they don’t like films that portray the North in a bad light.
Yi Mun-yol with Claire Armitstead on 10 April
Yi Mun-yol with Claire Armitstead on 10 April

Marina Warner: Maybe North Korean writers should try allegory.

  • They have a very factual approach.

Claire Armitstead: Can we talk about religious ritual in your work?

  • Many Koreans are very religious. They have to believe in something.
  • Religion is a comprehensive cultural phenomenon.
  • In Appointment with my Brother, the two brothers have little in common, apart from the need to celebrate the rite for their father. Your father is your blood, which is something you can’t erase.

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