Review: Meeting with my Brother by Yi Mun-yol

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Autobiographical account of the impact on one family of a divided nation

Publisher’s description: A sobering yet hopeful depiction of the volatile relationship between the divided Koreas. Yi, the narrator, is a South Korean university professor searching for his father who defected to the North at the outbreak of war. Instead he finds his half-brother and their tense meeting takes a surprising turn. This semi-autobiographical account upends the West’s assumptions about North Korean life.

My Review

This is my first experience of Korean literature and, although a slim volume, I found it quite a challenging read as it contains a great deal of detail about the history and politics of Korea, notably the separation of North and South Korea and prospects for reunification. There are a lot of allegorical features with characters representing particular aspects of ideological thought, such as Mr Reunification. Similarly the two brothers really represent the two parts of the divided nation. Only a small portion of the book covers the narrator’s meeting with his half-brother and, for me, these were the most successful aspects of the book with some interesting details of Korean tradition and rituals. The other parts I found quite dry. At times I felt the book verged on political essay rather than novel. What does comes across from the two brothers’ sharing of their experiences is that the people of each part of the divided Korea have suffered as a consequence of war, retribution (the law of “guilt by association”) and economic collapse. Ultimately, grief over their father’s death and this commonality of experience brings (albeit limited) reconciliation between the divided families.

I received an advance review copy courtesy of NetGalley and Columbia University Press.

Book facts: Publication date 4th April 2017, translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl with Yoosup Chang

My rating: 3 (out of 5)

In three words: Didactic, autobiographical, informative

About the Author

Yi Mun-yol was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1948 but the outbreak of the Korean War and his father’s defection to North Korea forced his family to move about until they settled in Yeongyang, his family’s ancestral seat.  He has written several novels and more than fifty novellas and short stories.

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