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Our Twisted Hero Essays

Yi Mun-yol (이문열) at HUFS

Our Twisted Hero is both the story of a new student dealing with a classroom bully and a political allegory with hints of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and even a bit of Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The political allegory, of course, is intended to refer to Korea and its recent history.

It is a very short novella, only 119 small pages, which, beneath it’s simple schoolroom setting, is actually a meditation on totalitarianism, and how intellectuals who might oppose it can eventually be brought to heel by it, either through a process of intimidation, or a process of assimilation and ease.

The book was published in 1987 in Korea and was Yi Mun-yol’s first book published in North America. This was seven years after the Kwangju Massacre and, like Ch’oe Yun’s more overt There a Petal Silently Falls is also a comment on the government of that era, which alternately oppressed voices for democracy and attempted to buy them off with economic and cultural goodies. The story is narrated by a middle-aged man reflecting on period of change in his young life.

In some ways it is a fish out of water story with a young protagonist (I say protagonist because he is not the “hero” of the title) moving from Seoul to the countryside and entering a new school there. The protagonist, Han Pyong-Tae is a clever fellow, and sees his new, somewhat bumpkin schoolmates as beneath him. Initially Pyong-Tae is certain that his big-city ways and knowledge will be acknowledged and he will naturally become the head of the class. Pyong-Tae is presented semi-unsympathetically, as something of an arrogant dandy, with little respect for anyone around him and a certainty of success.

This ascension is blocked, however, by Om Sokdae, a student of extreme power and charisma, little formal intellect and less education, but a rather devious understanding of power and coercion; the initial scene in which Om Sokdae easily persuades Pyong-Tae to make a snobbish fool of himself is brilliant. Om Sokdae is the recognized mini-dictator of the class, a status acquiesced to by even the teacher. Om Sokdae is feared by other students and indispensable to the teacher, whose classroom is a paragon of order under Sokdae’s rule. When Pyong-Tae buts head with Sokdae he quickly transforms from mere newbie to object of constant and orchestrated abuse.

Pyong-Tae fights the good fight for most of the term, but eventually capitulates to Om Sokdae’s power. Just, however, when Om Sokdae seems as immutable as stone a new teacher is assigned to the class and Om Sokdae’s power is swept away in a revolutionary maelstrom. Om Sokdae’s power is replaced by a multi-faceted system with a byzantine structure for such a small class (a ruling committee, a chairman, vice-chairman, section and subsection chiefs, monitor, vice-monitor, etc.). It is all too much and too inefficient and the order and certainty of Om Sokdae’s reign is replaced by chaos.

Om Sokdae’s orderly rule is, of course, a representation of Korea under its dictatorial regimes and the idealistic but utterly failed leadership that follows is representative of the early democratic regimes, which could not successfully follow the dictatorships. A comment is also made here that in the new, freer regime, certain ex-subjects will look back with nostalgia on the previous oppressive era (I’m sure that Yi took recent note of the election of Park Gun-hye, daughter of former dictator Park, to the presidency of Korea).

This is an interesting take, and Yi Mun-yol was one of the first Korean writers who did not merely apply a romantic gloss to the awkward flounderings of the early Korean democracy. As far as I can think of, Ch’oe Yun’s The Grey Snowman was the next to take on this kind of issue, and that was in 1992, nearly 5 years later.

Critically analyzing the result of the democratic movement is, of course, difficult; nations tend to romanticize and elevate the tales of their creation, and this is no different. Remember, in the United States, for instance, most novelistic history was hagiography, at least until the time that Gore Vidal came along to tip some apple carts over.

In any case, Yi, is clearly not an apologist for anything, and along with his message that unjust leadership should be contested, even though the nature of unjust leadership is that it maintains the balance of power until the very end he also passes along the message that good political intentions are not, by themselves, nearly enough.

In any case, in Sokdae, Yi shows how a kind of soft-power can be allied with hard-power to maintain control. Sokdae is bigger and older than the other students, but he is not just some kind of physical brute running around and pounding other kids into the turf. Instead he has his minions do his dirty work and works very hard indeed on building an atmosphere of paranoia. In fact, Sokdae produces for his class. Because of Sokdae’s discipline, his class always shows out best at the school and consequently earns perks, in addition, Sokdae is the defender of all the students under his control – in essence, he stands for the Korean government, which operated under a similar regime of economic rewards and promise of protection from external threats. But Pyong-Tae still dreams of overthrowing him.

In one of the key scenes in the book the narrator runs to the first teacher who is kind of content to let Sokdae run the class. When Pyong-Tae attempts to tell the teacher, not only is there no actual proof to be pointed to, but the other students are unwilling to support Pyong-Tae’s accusations. They are too afraid of Sokdae.

And, again, there is a strong subtext throughout the story that the teacher is quite content with the appearance of order and academic success. So, Pyong-Tae buckles to the inevitable, and in fact makes himself useful to Sokdae. Yi does a brilliant job in that scene, it’s reminiscent of when Winston Smith accepts Big Brother in 1984. After being relentlessly tortured over some windows he is supposed to clean,

My sudden tears now changed to uncontrollable sobs. As I clung to the window, I heard someone nearby call my name. I wiped away my tears and looked in the direction of the sound. Sokdae, leaving the others at some distance, had come over alone beneath the window and was looking up at me. His face seemed generous and merciful like never before.

Pytong-Tae’s capitulation brings him back in from the psychological ostracization he has been living with, and when he becomes one of Sokdae’s allies, he finds that his school-life becomes very easy indeed. His will to succeed against the odds, to become the leader himself, is utterly extinguished.

Just when all seems settled, a new teacher comes into town and decides to end Sokdae’s reign. This leads to an interesting moment in which Pyong-Tae, in the face of all the other students turning against Sokdae actually holds out and refuses to denounce Sokdae. Interestingly, and again a look into the clever levels on which Yi works, the new teacher, Democrat and all, basically pummels Sokdae into submission and then turns the class into a scary kind of re-education/denunciation session in which Pyong-Tae refuses to participate.

Pyong-Tae, in one reading, turns out to be a hero here, because he refuses to denounce Sokdae and in fact, realizes that everyone in the new, complicated classroom political structure is actually a collaborator. The new complicated system also turns out to initially be hopelessly deformed by Sokdae’s rule, with some students wildly reacting the other way, and still other students with will crippled by their history. Eventually the class recovers from the effects of Sokdae’s cult of personality, but no one, it seems, is the same. It’s a complicated and powerful book.

It only takes an hour or two to read, and it combines an fairly understandable and relatable story of school and bullying with a brilliant series of political allegories.

Definitely one of Yi Mun-yol’s best.

18 May, 2012 in Korean Literature, Korean Translation. Tags: editor, Korean author, Korean Literature, Korean Novel, Our Twisted Hero, Yi Mun-yol

Yi Mun-yol: Our Twisted Hero
Originally published 1987
Translated by Kevin O’Rourke
Available on Kindle (Minumsa, 2012) or hard copy (Hyperion Books, 2001)

Moving to the provinces from a school in Seoul in which the social hierarchy was one he had lived with all his life, our twelve-year-old hero Han Pyongt’ae is faced with a new social order – one in which the teachers are less impressive than in Seoul and in which the classroom is governed by a completely different system. Instead of a regime in which the class monitor is no more than a messenger between students and teacher, in this provincial school the class monitor keeps order in the class, ruling by way of a dictatorship. But despite certain abuses of power by the monitor Om Sokdae, no-one really suffers great hardship: instead, the class prospers and stands out for its overall performance, academic and otherwise. The Seoulite seeks to resist this new hierarchy without success – and why he isn’t beaten to a pulp on his first day at the new school isn’t really explained. Eventually, after months of ostracism and loneliness, Pyongt’ae decides to submit to Sokdae’s regime, and finds that he prospers much better when part of the system than outside it.

When a new teacher deposes the tyrant, the hierarchy is replaced by a fractious committee system in which the class’s progress is held back by petty squabbles.

The critique of Korea’s long dictatorship, in which so much economic success is achieved, but at the cost of social injustice, is obvious. From Sokdae’s enjoyment of private bawdy musical entertainments1, to his subjects’ “voluntary” offerings of goods and services2 there are plenty of references to life in Korea under Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan.

It would be tempting also to read into the book a criticism of Korea’s post-democratisation governments, but this is not possible given the timing of book’s publication in the run-up to the 1987 elections in which a successor to Chun Doo-hwan was to be elected. Instead, the critique of the world post-Sokdae can only be inspired, if at all, by the split in the democratic opposition during the election campaigns, or by the ineffectiveness of the short-lived regime that existed between Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee in 1960 and 1961.3

The transition from dictatorship to democracy by the deposition of the class monitor Om Sokdae is only made possible by the agency of a new teacher who punishes the oppressors and oppressed alike. The former teacher acquiesced in the system as it seemed to be beneficial, while the new teacher overturns the order, indignant that the class bully had been swapping exam papers with the class swots to make sure he was always top of the class.

If the classroom politics in Pyongt’ae’s school can be read as a microcosm of South Korea, this leaves the problem of how, if at all, to read the much broader framework within which Pyongt’ae’s classroom exists. The school itself, and in particular the individual teachers, has the power to change the way the class is run, but may chose not to. It is perhaps tempting to read this overarching framework as American imperialism which is taken to have condoned the oppressive policies of the Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan era. But maybe this is reading too much into the allegory.

The brief novella, made into a film by Park Jongwon in 1992, is well translated but the language sometimes feels awkward. There is often a preference for nouns where pronouns would be more natural in English, which makes you aware of the prose style rather than the content.4

Overall, Our Twisted Hero is rather a chore to read, though it is interesting for its balanced assessment of the rights and wrongs of Korea’s developmental dictatorship. But political allegory gets in the way of character delineation, with the result that you feel no sympathy with any of the protagonists; and even reading it as allegory you wonder how far to push the real-world parallels. Thinking back to my first encounter with Yi Mun-yol in translation, The Poet, I found the latter much more natural and enjoyable. I shall return to my hard copy of that in the future, while Our Twisted Hero will suffer the uncertain fate of being archived from my Kindle.

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