Friday, September 10, 2004

Yi Munyol with the smackdown

My morning partner teacher, J, gave me Yi Munyol's novella Our Twisted Hero as a birthday present. It's a quick read at almost 120 pages; I finished it the same day.

The fictional protagonist and narrator of the story, 40-something Han Pyongt'ae, recounts a six-month slice of his middle school years during which he finds himself engaged in a battle of wills with an older student, Om Sokdae, a class monitor who rules with an iron fist, threatening the younger children through violence and cajolery while living off their labors on his behalf. Students bring Sokdae tributes in the form of food and prized possessions; some even take his tests for him, ensuring that he gets straight A's. Sokdae is like a Mafia boss, and no one will speak out against him.

The protagonist, Pyongt'ae, is an outsider, having arrived at this rickety, small-town school after an illustrious start in a high-powered Seoul middle school. Pyongt'ae refuses, at first, to give in to Sokdae's way of running things: in Seoul, class monitors used reason and persuasion, not their fists, to manage the students under them. Pyongt'ae's initial refusal to knuckle under, the eventual collapse of his resistance, and what happened afterward are the subject of this book. Yi Munyol has done a great job of re-creating the psychological complexities of childhood and power struggles.

J told me that Yi's novel is chock-full of political imagery and can be read as allegory for actual figures in recent Korean history: as with Orwell's Animal Farm, the setting and characters stand in for reality. I'll need to talk with J more about this; I think a lot of the allegory passed me by.

This isn't an American novel: Yi's protagonist doesn't get a cinematic moment of comeuppance and vindication (except, perhaps, in his vision of an adult Om Sokdae in the novella's conclusion). But one character stood out for me, as he probably would for most American readers: the young teacher who transfers in to the school in mid-year. He immediately sees Sokdae's reign of terror and sets about cleaning it up. My favorite passage comes from page 95 of this translated version, right after Sokdae and his top cronies get a severe beating while the entire class watches. The teacher turns to the beaten students and says regarding Sokdae's oppression:

"What was rightfully yours was taken from you and you weren't even angry, you bent to unjust power and you weren't ashamed. And the best students in the class, too... If you continue to live that way, the pain you will bear in the future will be so great, the beating you got from me today won't even compare. It's horrible to even imagine the kind of world you'll create when you become grown-ups... Kneel down on the dais, back on your heels, hands up, and reflect on yourselves once again."

I think perhaps the teacher was trying to teach us something that was just too difficult. No one among us there understood what he really meant; indeed, thirty years later, some of us still don't understand at all.

The American reading of this is clear: don't give in to the urge to appease. This is, apparently, Yi Munyol's message as well, and according to J he's been lumped in with Korean conservatives because of his beliefs. The original Korean version of the novel caused a stir when it was published, J says; I can imagine why. In countries that practice wholesale censorship of political opinion, the writer's solution is allegory, but even if you miss Yi's allegory, as I doubtless have, you still pick up the core values he's espousing. The application of this moral to South Korean geopolitics, especially as regards its neighbor north of the DMZ, is obvious.


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