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FICTION

Dark Star: the Return of a Classic

  • onOctober 20, 2015
  • Vol.29 Autumn 2015
  • byNathaniel Davis
Son of Man
Tr. Brother Anthony of Taizé
2015
208pp.

Although Yi Mun-yol’s Son of Man begins like a run-of-the-mill detective novel—a policeman under pressure, an unidentified body, bloodstained gloves found discarded in the woods near the crime scene, enigmatic clues, and so on—the narrative quickly takes a turn towards the strange. When the victim is identified as a wayward Christian monk, and a detective by the name of Nam discovers his unfinished manuscript of a novel that rewrites Biblical history, any crime novel clichés are set aside.

First published in 1979, Yi’s novel features a double narrative: the detective story becomes a frame novel for the victim’s rewriting of the myth of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew. The manuscript of Min Yoseop, the monk who has been murdered, recounts a fictionalized biography of Ahasuerus, who is presented as an alternative Jesus: a parallel prophet whose birth is heralded not by the Star of Bethlehem, but by “Star of Disaster,” and whose spiritual development takes on a much different character to that of Christ.

As a young Jew in Israel, Ahasuerus is a devoted believer until he is made aware of the existence of suffering. This discovery shakes Ahasuerus’ faith sending him off on an epic journey around the ancient world, from Alexandria, to Babylon, to Rome, in search of the origins of his Jewish religion. For the reader, Ahasuerus’ journey functions as a comparative history of ancient religion, tracing the gnostic roots of Judaism back to the primitive animistic religions and myths. Ahasuerus spends time in each place learning about its gods; again and again, after an initial period of enthusiasm, he is disappointed to discover how belief systems are shaped by political intrigue and the base desires of a frightened populace. Even in Rome, he comes to see the rationalism and rhetoric of the greatest philosophers as mere sophistry, unable to provide the revelation he yearns for. His search for the one true God fails, and he returns home a cynic and an unbeliever. At this point in Min Yoseop’s manuscript, Ahasuerus meets Jesus, and their interactions represent Yi Mun-yol’s critical rewriting of Biblical history, with an eye towards the role of the Church in modern-day South Korea.

The manuscript enters into the novel by way of Detective Nam’s reading, which is spread out over a number of days. The Ahasuerus narrative is interrupted by Nam’s investigations, and vice versa. In doing so, Yi effectively engages the reader in a dual intrigue, as the fates of the Wandering Jew and the murdered monk become intertwined. While the lengthy lists of ancient gods and the somewhat repetitive nature of Ahasuerus’ adventures may grow tiresome at times, the reader’s attention is nevertheless held by the basic “whodunit” structure of the frame novel.

The crime investigation brings Detective Nam to several Korean cities, where he gradually gathers the information that will allow him to piece together the blurry backstory of Min Yoseop. Unsurprisingly, the monk turns out to have an extraordinary history. After excelling in seminary, he develops heterodox theological views and is forced to leave, whereupon he begins a career as a teacher. He later moves on to labor organization in a show of solidarity with the working class, then develops an informal society of runaway youths, providing these homeless children with food, shelter, and education. Min is portrayed as a kind of fictionalized embodiment of the revolutionary kernel of Christianity installed in modern-day Korean culture.

As the novel’s translator, Brother Anthony mentions in his preface that Yi grew up in a milieu that still treasured the Confucian roots of old Korea, and Son of Man can in part be seen as a protest against the encroachment of Christianity in South Korea after the Second World War. Like many other Korean writers who harbored left-leaning tendencies, Yi was critical of the Protestant church in Korea due to “the corruption of so many undereducated churchmen who used their spiritual authority to demand more and more money from their often impoverished flocks” (vi).

However, Son of Man is not an essentially anticlerical work. It is, rather, the result of the author’s long and thorough research into comparative religion and mythology. It attempts not to attack the church, but to offer, through his fictionalized life of Ahasuerus, an alternative Biblical biography that would be separate to the life of Jesus, in which another rebellious young Jew’s spiritual reflections leads not to the establishment of dogma, but rather to an anarchic denial of all spiritual, mythological, and even philosophical claims to absolutism. The murdered monk Min Yoseop’s trajectory reflects that of Ahasuerus in certain ways, and in his archetypal dissatisfaction with the limitations of his belief as a young seminary student—we are reminded somewhat superfluously that “faith does not always go well with knowledge” (17)—he represents the concerns of a generation of postwar Koreans, confused about the proper role of religion and spirituality in modern culture. It was for this reason that Son of Man was so popular at the time of its publication, going on to sell nearly two million copies. The political subtext to Min Yoseop’s spiritual strivings emphasizes the conflict between Western religion and the political unrest of the era.

As in The Poet, Mun-yol’s other classic novel (translated into English in 1995), Son of Man’s focus is on social critique through the literary rewriting of history. The dual nature of this work, however—oscillating as it does between Biblical narrative and crime fiction—makes the critical-historical perspective somewhat more diffuse; or rather, it is more focused upon questions of the eternal rather than the temporal. Brother Anthony’s translation is a welcome and important addition to the English-language library of modern Korean literature. 

 

by Nathaniel Davis
Assistant Editor, Dalkey Archive Press