Korea is divided and families are torn apart. What would it really be like to finally find the family you’ve never met? Would there be any common ground, or are the divisions between the two countries two great even for blood to overcome? Such are the questions explored in “Meeting with My Brother,” the novella by Yi Mun-Yol, appearing here in a new translation by Heinz Insu Fenkl and Yoosup Chang.
I frankly acknowledge that my knowledge of Korean literature should be measured in negative numbers, and that my knowledge of Korean history and culture, my teenage study of Tae Kwon Do notwithstanding, is little better. So I was curious to see how much I would be able to get out of this story, especially as the reader is warned in the introduction that Yi’s work “cannot be engaged superficially for the sake of entertainment or distraction,” that Yi is noted for his “unusual use of language, particularly his method of layering thematic and psychological qualities under what appeared, on the surface, to be a rather straightforward and expository style,” and that Yi has a “deep engagement with [Korean] tradition” that can be challenging even for contemporary Koreans, let alone Westerners.
Duly warned, I entered into the story with no little trepidation, but in fact on first read what stood out most strongly for me was Yi’s “straightforward and expository style.” Although this is not a story a Westerner would have written, it is at least on the surface level quite accessible to uninitiated readers like me. In fact, I would recommend it for anyone looking to dip a toe into Korean literature and not knowing where to start.
The plot is ostensibly simple, although it becomes more complicated under examination. A middle-aged professor from Seoul discovers that his father, who left the family during the war to join the North, is still alive and has a whole second family. It might be possible to set up a meeting in China, next to the North Korean border, but arranging it takes so long that the narrator’s father passes away before the meeting can take place. Instead, the narrator meets with his half-brother. Initially, both men are suspicious, even hostile, towards each other, but then they discover common bonds of brotherhood.
In another writer’s hands, the story could turn sappy, but Yi keeps the narrative controlled, almost dry, which only serves to heighten the emotions of the characters. Both of them are ambivalent about their families, their countries, and their current position vis-a-vis each other, and both find themselves at first concealing the truth from each other, and then letting it pour out as they perform a memorial service in their father’s honor, before becoming estranged once again. And in truth, how else could a meeting like that go? The sorrow of the divided families/divided country of Korea is too profound to be aired out and resolved in a few short hours. Reconciliation and reunification are not going to happen overnight, either on the national or the personal level, something that is gently stressed by the appearance of the character Mr. Reunification, a dreamer who can’t win over others to his cause. Even if there were to be a will, there would have to be a practical way to bring it about, and the other characters, looking at the examples from the Eastern Bloc/post-Soviet space (the novella was originally written in the mid-90s), are skeptical that reunification can happen quickly and easily. The business of practical arrangements and day-to-day living features in every aspect of the narrative, on every level, so that Professor Yi’s too-short and unsatisfactory meeting with his brother stands in for the whole messy business of the two Koreas. “A Meeting with My Brother” is not tragic, but it has a gentle melancholy to it that is never, like the real life situation that inspired it, fully resolved. In the end, a beautiful story about the strengths and limits of family bonds.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.