Brothers on the Border: Meeting with My Brother by Yi Mun-yol
- onJuly 20, 2017
- Vol.36 Summer 2017
- byLucy Scholes
- 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.”
It’s not that the imagery Yi uses is particularly radical—indeed, as the novella’s talented and attentive translator Heinz Insu Fenkl explains in the introduction he’s written to accompany this new edition, the author uses a “well-understood post-Korean War metaphor of separated brothers as divided nation”—all the same, in Yi’s hands, it’s powerfully evocative, and I found myself deeply engrossed in every nuance of the guarded dance played out between the brothers, every shred of tension, jealousy, and love pulled as taut as possible. Ordinary sibling bickering and one-upmanship is transformed into political power play, as if each brother is “a representative at a South-North summit.”
This push and pull between the two men is replicated in the pitfalls of official attempts at “cultural exchange,” though not necessarily in the form we might expect. “I tried to introduce the South Koreans to people who were a bit more open-minded and less political, since they themselves seemed to have a bit of a—how should I put it?—radical slant,” says a cultural ambassador. “To think they call that cultural exchange—birds of a feather telling each other what they already think. Is that what passes for philosophy in a democratic society?” There’s a twofold process of illumination at work here: first, that which a simple shift in perspective engenders—brothers who must learn to see things from each others’ points of view, not be limited by the narrowness of their own experience or the ideology they’ve absorbed—then secondly, that in which unexpected similarities come to light.
Cultural differences between the brothers necessitate Mr. Kim stepping in every once in a while “like a dutiful interpreter,” and just as integral are Fenkl’s efforts of elucidation. A previous English translation—by Suh Ji-Moon—was published in 2002, under the title An Appointment with My Brother. It’s not a huge leap between this and Fenkl’s new title, but the informality and inclusivity—the agency the word “meeting” implies on both sides of the assignation—are much more indicative of the story that unfolds. At Fenkl’s suggestion, the author also added an additional scene to his original work, set during the war (remembered as a flashback by the narrator who was just a child at the time): “an essential element of the story to be made vivid to the English readership.” Freshly presented to a new generation, Meeting with My Brother makes for required reading.
by Lucy Scholes
Literary Critic, Freelance Editor