Meeting with My Brother is prefaced by an illuminating introduction by professor and translator Heinz Insu Fenkl in which he provides a literary and personal background to Korean author Yi Mun-Yol and Korean literature in general. While literature should in general stand on its own, and this novella certainly does, the additional context provides a perspective that would otherwise almost certainly be missed:
Since modern Korean literature was born out of the Japanese colonial era and developed through the oppressive administrations of military dictators, the role of writer has always been one fraught with a high degree of moral and ethical responsibility (it is only in relatively recent times that the kind of commercial publishing familiar in the West has become the dominant system). … At a time when younger and more popular Korean writers are going out of their way to present themselves as “international” or “nationless” writers, Yi is probably the only Korean writer whose work is read most clearly from outside the constraints of Korean national and literary politics…
Meeting with My Brother is a tightly-structured tale of the first and, one supposes, last meeting between a middle-aged South Korean professor and his younger half-brother from the North. The particular family is split because the father went North out of conviction at the outbreak of the War—expecting to return and collect his family, which of course was never possible. The wife and children he left behind could not escape the stigma of father’s defection, a guilt by association with not just social but also palpable consequences. The father remarried several years later and raised a second family.
There is much here that is autobiographical; this mirrors Yi’s own life. The protagonist even bears the author’s name. The fictional Yi decides to attempt a reunion with his father, something obviously fraught with political as well as emotional peril. He uses an intermediary—a Mr Kim—via the China city of Yanji near the border. While arrangements are being made, however, his father dies; Kim suggests his half-brother instead.
“My brother did not show up,” starts the novella, with a line that seems to echo Camus. But after a while, he does. The novella, excluding some flashbacks, is the story of these two brothers, coming to know and understand each other. Oh, there’s much more to it than that—an exploration of the divide across the peninsula, how the two peoples grew part, the political discrimination that dogs families with relations on the other side—but the simple story, heartbreaking in many ways, of two men recognizing each other as brothers and coming to terms with a painful shared history is the human core of the story.
Perhaps coincidentally, the novella is reminiscent of some Russian writing, not just in the introspective nature of its emotional focus, the lengthy diversions into politics and folkloric tradition, nor in the relatively dark palette in which it is written, but also in the inclusion of characters used for satirical and ironic relief: a “Mr Reunification” who plagues the tour groups everyone seems to use for access to North Korea and a “businessman” who is in fact a smuggler of North Korean antiques.
Yi—and, it must be acknowledged, his evidently talented translators—succeed in telling a tale that is both universal as well as rooted in the very particular circumstances of a divided Korea. Brothers divided by impenetrable borders and malevolent Cold War politics is not a new story—but in Korea, this reality persists. This story was written a quarter-century ago, and set several years earlier; while much as of course changed, much also has not.
It would easy, and tempting, to say, as does the introduction, that Meeting with My Brother is
an antidote, a counterpoint, and an expansion of everything we have come to associate with North Korea from Western media coverage.
But one needs to be wary about drawing fact from what is after all a work of fiction. But fiction might at least provide a nuanced set of spectacles with with to read the other, presumably objective, accounts. Not being an expert, I cannot say, but thankfully do not need to: Meeting with My Brother is, at just 90 taut pages, is well worth reading for its own sake.