Dreaming to Be Free from the Periphery: About Yi Mun-yol’s Novels
- onFebruary 16, 2015
- Vol.26 Winter 2014
- byYi Mun-yol
Yi Mun-yol is an “author of the periphery” who has been attracting more international acclaim with the publication of his short story in translation, “An Anonymous Island” in The New Yorker. The reason why Yi is an “author of the periphery” is that in his novel, The In-between Periphery, he has clearly contextualized the history of Korea in the post-liberation period within the geopolitical boundary of the two empires, namely the U.S. and the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. Yi Mun-yol can also be considered a writer of freedom; in a totalitarian society in which the government has declared the divided country to be in a quasi-state of war and consequently dictates that its people need to live a prescribed life, Yi is one of few writers who urges such a society’s members to exercise their free will. In short, he is a “writer who dreamt of true freedom from the periphery.”
However, Yi was not always like that from the start. In the beginning, he was just “a free writer.” In his early works, he presented the fundamental issue in South Korean society as the problem of an individual death that was triggered by the totalitarian order. In his debut work, “Saehagok,” he gives a detailed account of a few days in simulated wartime training and shows how South Korean society ceaselessly coerces the lives of its members into a war machine, thereby alluding to the nature of control in South Korea. And in “Pilon’s Pig,” he delineates a group of individuals whose memories have been subject to thought control and take on a mob quality to collectively execute a violent act.
However, some of his earlier works also tell stories of searching as well as adventures of characters that long to be free from surveillance and restriction. In The Son of Man and A Portrait of Youthful Days, the author epitomizes the searching and fervor of youth who reject the injustice of the world as the peak moment of one’s life. That is because he glimpses hope in the struggles of the young as a gateway to a more open society.
The author’s exploration of the possibility of the autonomous existence of the youth, relentlessly struggling against an outdated system, goes through another transformation. He despairs over the forces of the democracy movement, who had rejected the totalitarian order, only to espouse an “iron discipline.” Declaring that there exist two types of censors—the totalitarian government and the totalitarian forces of the democracy movement, he wages a fight against both.