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Yi Mun-Yol: 아우와의만남 (An Appointment with My Brother; later: Meeting with My Brother)

There have been two English-language editions of this book. The first was translated by Suh Ji-Moon and published in 2002 as An Appointment with My Brother, while the second was published in 2017 and translated as Meeting with My Brother by Heinz I Fenkl. I read the most recent one but am obvious not competent to compare the two.

Yi Mun-Yol’s father defected to Korea in the latter part of the Korean War. The family never saw him again. The defection caused a lot of trouble for the family – Yi Mun-Yol, his mother and two siblings – and they had to move continually for fear of being associated with a political enemy. They assumed the father was dead but later learned that he had been in various camps and was now married with five children. It was impossible to meet him or even correspond with him. This novel is an imagined account of an attempted meeting with him and, as the title tells us, when that fails, a meeting with his half-brother.

The hero is a South Korean Professor, called Yi. As with his namesake and creator, he has lost his father, who defected to North Korea. Later in the book, the scene when he leaves is described, as he dashes away before the US army arrives in Seoul. Yi had been to Yanji to attend a seminar given by Professor Ryu. Yanji is in China but overlooks North Korea and was used by South Koreans as a way of making contact with North Koreans. There is a significant Korean population in the town. Overlooking the town and North Korea is Mount Baekdu where the mythic ancestor of the Korean people descended from Heaven. While out walking with Professor Ryu, Professor Yi mentions his situation and Ryu suggests that he hire someone to enable him to meet his father. Yi finally does so, hiring Mr. Kim. It is expensive but, by the time Mr. Kim tracks down his father, he learns that the father had died two weeks previously.

Mr. Kim has spent a lot of money but is not in a position to pay Yi back so he suggests contacting Yi’s half-brother. Yi concurs and a meeting is set up. The meeting is awkward and indeed gets off to a bad start, before getting worse. Cultural and political issues crop up and Yi, as the oldest brother, feels he has some rights which Hyeok, the half-brother, does not readily accept. They trade insults about their respective countries, generally quoting the propaganda normally used in their respective countries. However, Mr. Kim manages to intervene and the relationship between the two brothers starts to improve.

Yi Mun-Yol tells an excellent story about an unusual subject, without being too judgemental about either side. Indeed, where he is critical, it is about others he meets in Yanji. There is a man he calls Mr. Reunification who, as his nickname implies, is keen on Korean reunification and very knowledgeable on Korean history. However, he is also aware of the risks of reunification. Indeed, the two brothers briefly discuss the issue, as though it is something that is inevitable. There is also a man who smuggles works of art out of North Korea and makes a lot of money selling them in South Korea, of whom he is more critical.

Given the semi-autobiographical nature of the book, it has a certain poignancy, but Yi Mun-Yol does not fall into the trap of being overly sentimental, focussing on telling his story and showing us the problem caused by a divided country, where relatives are kept apart for ideological reasons. The introduction explains why a second translation was thought necessary, not least because he added a few small glosses, and where there was a significant need for a concrete dramatic evocation of the Korean War narrative, he provided an additional scene that is absent in the original Korean edition and Suh’s translation. As the translator points out, though this book was published in Korean in 1994, it is still as relevant now.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Tungji
First English translation by Jimoondang in 2002
Translated by Suh Ji-Moon (An Appointment with My Brother); Heinz I Fenkl (Meeting with My Brother)