Yi Mun-yŏl is one of Korea’s most respected authors. When he was a child, his father abandoned the family, defecting to North Korea. This shamed the family and left them impoverished as they were widely shunned as the family of a traitor. He quit school, contemplated suicide, and found his salvation in writing. In Meeting with My Brother, the main character is also named Yi, also the son of a defector, also the product of an impoverished struggle as the son of a traitor, also a man saved by writing, also famed throughout the world for his writing.
Yi Mun-yŏl thought for many years his father had died in one of the many North Korean purges, however after more than 30 years silence, he received a letter from his father telling him he had five siblings. In the novel, the fictional Professor Yi discovers his father is alive and travels to China where it borders North Korea in order to see his father who can be relatively easily brought across the border. Sadly, Kim, the man arranging it all was too slow and his father died, but Kim offers to arrange a meeting with his brother instead. The fictional Yi is surprised to learn he has siblings, two brothers and a sister, but agrees that he would like to meet him.
This is a quiet novel. It’s about the meeting between the South Korean and North Korean brothers, but also about the two countries and unification. There is even a character that Professor Yi calls Mr. Reunification who is there to proselytize. Yi is a subtle writer, planting quiet hints of revelations to come. Mr. Reunification and then a smuggler/tourist who personify a couple political positions toward unification as the brothers personify North and South Korea.
Unification is this dream/nightmare that haunts the Koreas. Families divided for decades dream of coming back together. Yet, those in the South fear the ideology and those in the North fear they will exploited. German unified but not without difficulty. Yemen unified and is now at war. The conversations are small, the story is small and yet, the themes are huge.
Meeting with My Brother will be released April 4th. I received an advance e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley.
- Meeting with My Brother at Columbia University Press
- “An Anonymous Island” – a short story by Yi Mun-yŏl at The New Yorker
- Yi Mun-yŏl page at Korean Literature Now
- A Letter to My Readers Around the World by Yi Mun-yŏl