- Meeting with My Brother
Tr. Heinz Insu Fenkl and Yoosup Chang 2017120pp.
“Is it possible that your approach is wrong? Taking a purely political approach to reunification . . .” asks the narrator of Yi Mun-yol’s 1994 novella Meeting with My Brother. He’s engaged in a heated discussion with another member of the tour group he’s on, one who goes by the nickname “Mr. Reunification”—an activist with a “passionate interest in the lost glories of ancient Korea.” They are in Yanji, on the Chinese-North Korean border, a place where smugglers pass themselves off as tourists and estranged families attempt surreptitious rendezvous. The narrator, a professor from Seoul, falls into the latter category. After trying to get in touch with his long-lost father—who fled to the North during the Korean War, never to return to the wife and children he left behind in the South (something Yi himself experienced firsthand, his own father defecting the same way)—he finds his father has passed away, this attempt at reconciliation too late. Does he want to meet his half-brother instead, asks Mr. Kim, the intermediary organizing the reunion.
After an emotionally fraught day spent with his new brother, the now slightly drunk narrator is berating his loud-mouthed fellow traveler because he’s had enough of the man haranguing everyone about the “importance of reunification,” but so too his suggestion crystallizes the larger raison d’être of the novella itself: Yi navigates the political by way of the subjectivity of his protagonists—of one man shouldering the grief, anger, and resentment of having been abandoned, while the other contends with the burden of growing up in the shadow of a mirror image he’s never met.
And it’s via these two personal experiences that we’re able to begin to comprehend the very real complexities at stake when it comes to the larger divided nation. Yi’s message rings out loud and clear: a “purely political” approach is to miss the point; the political is always personal. “Perhaps that’s what reunification is,” muses his narrator towards the end of the tale, “only on a grander scale and all at once: meeting a brother whose face you’ve never seen.”