The World's Literature: Colombia discussion

Son of Man by Yi Mun-yol

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message 1: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3620 comments This novel Son of Man by Yi Mun-Yol Yi Mun-Yol begins as an absorbing mystery in which a detective seeks information from various people who had known the deceased. It's one in a collection of Korean literary books published by Dalkey Archive Press.

message 2: by Suzann (new)

Suzann | 60 comments Makes me wonder what inspired the author to trace the history of Christianity through the journey of the protagonist. Is Christianity a major sect in Korea? Just read Milton's Paradise Lost which raises the same questions. Although Milton gives Satan a starring role, he affirms God's preeminence using terms like heavenly monarch--terms associated with the British monarchy which he hated. Maybe an ironic use of terms which his critics didnt find offensive. So in Korea free speech and western religion are established rights?

message 3: by Betty (last edited Apr 04, 2019 01:48AM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3620 comments Suzann wrote: "Makes me wonder what inspired the author to trace the history of Christianity through the journey of the protagonist.."

"The “outsider” or the “wanderer” is one of Yi’s favorite themes [...] The themes of division, estrangement, and the search for connection permeates quite a lot of Yi’s work"--Heinz Insu Fenkl and Cressida Leyshon, The New Yorker.

"In The Son of Man and A Portrait of Youthful Days, the author epitomizes the searching and fervor of youth who reject the injustice of the world as the peak moment of one’s life. That is because he glimpses hope in the struggles of the young as a gateway to a more open society."--About Yi Mun-yol’s Novels by Ryu Bo-seon, Korean Literature Now

"As the novel’s translator, Brother Anthony mentions in his preface that Yi grew up in a milieu that still treasured the Confucian roots of old Korea, and Son of Man can in part be seen as a protest against the encroachment of Christianity in South Korea after the Second World War. Like many other Korean writers who harbored left-leaning tendencies, Yi was critical of the Protestant church in Korea due to “the corruption of so many undereducated churchmen who used their spiritual authority to demand more and more money from their often impoverished flocks” (vi)."--Son of Man review by Nathaniel Davis, Korean Literature Now

message 4: by Suzann (new)

Suzann | 60 comments Very detailed history of Christianity for a protest! Perhaps suggesting "giving Christianity a chance" before rejecting or that his disappointment with Christianity is not with current leaders but with the founding tenets. Min also considered Eastern religions, but not with the same scrutiny as Christianity.

message 5: by James (new)

James F | 124 comments My review:

A critique of religion incorporated in a historical novel embedded in a mystery novel, this became very popular among students in Korea. The murder mystery didn't really appeal to me, although it was sort of destroyed to begin with because the translator revealed who the murderer was in the introduction. The historical novel was based on the legend of Ahasuerus, the "Wandering Jew"; the take of the author was that he rejected the Old Testament religion of Yahweh and searched through Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, India and Rome for a new god, then had a revelation in the desert, met Jesus and became his opponent. There are parallels between Ahasuerus and the supposed author, Min Yoseop, who was murdered at the beginning of the novel. The religious arguments against Christianity were interesting but nothing new, not entirely clear and don't go far enough; basically they just portray Yahweh (and by implication, Christianity) as self-righteous and too concerned with prohibitions, and in the end Min Yoseop appears to have returned to Christianity. A worthwhile book but probably of more interest in the context of Korean Christianity than to a worldwide audience.

Suzann, I'm not all that familiar with Korea, but the impression I've gotten from the things we've read so far is that Christianity, in some form, is very much a major force in South Korea. It also seems to have become more "democratic" (in the neoliberal sense of the word) in the last two decades, at least compared to what it was before.

The novel within the novel sets up a new dualistic mythology which reinterprets Satan, Judas etc. as an opposing but not evil counterforce to Yahweh; I'm not sure how seriously we should take this, it is probably just an allegorical way of treating the faults of Christianity and suggesting how people ought to act without religion (the idea that God should leave people alone to forge their own ideas of morality is basically secularism.) There are many ideas here which are not entirely consistent; one of the interesting post-modernist devices here is that the frame story of the detective allows the real author (Yi) to provide criticisms of the novel by Min. The idea that God has a responsibility to the creation rather than vice versa reminded me of Frankenstein.

message 6: by Melaslithos (new)

Melaslithos | 40 comments I'm slowly catching up on this group reading. I have enjoyed this book a lot and found it quite though provoking on several points. One thing I regret though, seeing the duality of the new god create by Min Yoseop and Cho Dongpal, is that Ahasuerus didn't went all the way to the far east, and didn't explore Chinese religions such as Taoism. I'm curious how notions such as Yin & Yang would have fared in light of this.

message 7: by Betty (last edited Aug 24, 2019 09:40PM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3620 comments Melaslithos wrote: "...I'm curious how notions such as Yin & Yang would have fared ..."

It will be an open question for a while. [Edit: For many years, in olden time, the young man Ahasuerus, who speaks Latin, Greek, and Aramaic, in Min Yeosop's manuscript, travels from his family home to cross western Asia seeking a worthy god among the frequently polytheistic religions in the ancient cultures of Egypt, Babylon, and other historical population centers, at one point digging from the earth cuneiform tablets.

As your comment lays out, I too wonder how the story might have been different with the ancient beliefs and faiths of East Asia? Would he have found the object of his quest there? For the present, I don't see a connection to the greater whole of Yin-Yang.]

message 8: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3620 comments The White Review in its 2014 translation issue published Chapter 1 of Son of Man at


A couple more books by Yi Mun-yol a public library stocked. The first of his translated into English is Our Twisted Hero by Yi Mun-Yol Our Twisted Hero
Two-person audio discussion about it

The other text is titled Meeting with My Brother by Yi Mun-Yol Meeting with My Brother


message 9: by Betty (last edited Aug 28, 2019 05:40PM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3620 comments Suzann wrote: "...Although Milton gives Satan a starring role, he affirms God's preeminence using terms like heavenly monarch...."

At the end of this novel, IMO, the enigmatic Cho Dongpal evolves into a star eclipsing his meditative teacher, and perhaps false idol, Min Yoseop. In Cho's revision of the Bible, he takes issue with the concept of Yahweh. Having set the rules and being the judge, the creator ought not to expect obedience and worship or mete out punishment and approval after having made imperfect human beings. According to the Great Wisdom, or first-person narrator Cho, two coequal spirits Goodness and Wisdom, initially maintained 'harmony.' He disagrees with Yahweh's capriciousness, inconstant and unacceptable judgments, and actions to biblical characters. Cho extends his newfound philosophy beyond the theological words to act for knotty social reform. Wealth redistribution and other assistance he carries out even a few persons at a time. In chapter 15, he grows dissatisfied with studious Min Yoseop's giving up on a new god and an earthly life of happiness for a return to Yahweh and future paradisal happiness. Cho takes a file of text Min had written and reworked its concepts, assigning himself the first-person narrator, the Great Wisdom.
"The Goodness of Yahweh and my Wisdom were a warp and woof comprising that Original Being [...] two spirits that would partially reveal themselves under the names of Justice and Freedom. [...] But the connection between us was greatly misconstrued--the most obvious example of this being the way we were only understood as each other's negation: a good god on one side, an evil god on the other."
He senses the terrible consequence of that opposition in the creation of human beings and human nature. In the next paragraph, he indicates how sin, evil, and sorrow result when the Originator lacks Goodness or Wisdom and Justice or Freedom. On this topic, Melaslithos commented on the dualism of Yin and Yang, the interdependent oppositions here at work. In a similar light, the frame of the detective mystery links to Min's written narrative when the principal investigator Sergeant Nam reads all the texts. The outer and inner stories complement one another despite differing genre and writing style — Cho's obsession with inventing the new God fuels the murder investigation. Without the grisly religious disagreement between teacher and student in the Ahasuerus story, there wouldn't have been a police inquiry. Without the latter, Min's texts would not have surfaced.

message 10: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3620 comments James wrote: "...The idea that God has a responsibility to the creation rather than vice versa reminded me of Frankenstein."

Min Yoseop perceived a weak Christianity too focused on paradisal happiness instead of on lived experience. One argument was whether Yahweh abdicated responsibility for creation by putting humankind on earth to live miserably. His travels would have showed terrible conditions to him and, worse, the resistance to improvement. The religion of Yahweh was ineffective for large-scale social remodeling to end the misery but placed faith in the happiness of the afterlife. Resignedly, Min can provide for himself and some few others but ought not to assume powers he doesn't possess. About your example of Frankenstein, Min inadvertently created the monster, Cho.

message 11: by Betty (last edited Aug 28, 2019 05:38PM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3620 comments Melaslithos wrote: "...Ahasuerus didn't go all the way to the far east.."

The Wanderer does reach India and the religion of Buddhism and does not reach the far east. The novel mentions that though he could have gone further, he went to the boundary of known territory. Buddhists explain happiness as samsara, the release from the recycle of birth and death. Nirvana is the emptiness separate from self and society. Other characters mention that Min Yoseop always meditates and studies.

message 12: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3620 comments Having read Yi Munyol's Son of Man , I continued with Our Twisted Hero . A transfer student from Seoul to a 'small town' stubbornly resists the unexpected domination of the elected class monitor. The rest of the youngsters will not divulge the actuality, and their teacher only notices the respect accorded the older and physically larger boy. Meanwhile, the latter stealthily intimidates the sixty-some of other students into submission and obedience. His method of governance involves arbitrary punishments, rankings, and rewards as well as inexplicit words to win absolute loyalty to himself. To an observer, the class appears exceptionally well-behaved and high achieving having the best grades in the school. To get free of the yoke requires a necessary but fearful, painful, remedial process. Positive results could invigorate the 'lifeless' students to use their governing council skills in the interests of all.

message 13: by James (new)

James F | 124 comments I'm planning to read this. Are you thinking of adding it as another read for the group? I admit that as much as I'm enjoying the Korean literature I'm really impatient to get to the Arabic as well. (I don't know what authors you have in mind, but I've picked up some at library book sales -- Mahfouz (one of my favorite authors), el Saadawi and Tariq Ali among others.)

message 14: by Betty (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3620 comments James wrote: "I'm planning to read this...I'm really impatient to get to the Arabic as well..."

The reading for Korea is as is in TWL's Bookshelf. I know that K-lit is fascinating. Actually, with more time, the prolific Dalkey Archive series of Korean literature, some of which we are reading, would be a source for further enjoyment. Our Twisted Hero is a book I read on my own. It is the first of Yi Munyol's novels to get translated for the United States market. More of a novella, it goes by quickly and is less complicated than Son of Man. Still, the author considers a profoundly troubling aspect of human psychology and society. I would read it but not add it.

As you note, March 1 begins the study of Arabic literature in translation. The start day is just around the corner. I mulled over and gathered a handful of readings but wrote down nothing in particular. The planning of it needs a new discussion topic.

message 15: by Betty (last edited Sep 04, 2019 10:32AM) (new)

Betty Asma (everydayabook) | 3620 comments Meeting with My Brother by Yi Mun-Yol

I have found thought-provoking stories by Yi Mun-Yol. Son of Man is his first book, I think, and quite an intellectual epic -- murder mystery, frame narrative, a survey of religious thought across western Asia, and sociopolitical situations. Another book Our Twisted Hero portrays the means of and effects from one fifth-grade schoolboy's establishment of totalitarian control over fellow students. What change is needed to break it up? In the novella Meeting with My Brother , Yi's scenario is the arranged meeting of two Korean brothers unknown to each other because of the North and South division. Each brings some psychological baggage from never having met because of their father's flight northward amid the Korean War. The younger is carrying out a request from his deceased parent to give a precious award medal to the elder one, and both share a memorial ceremony. In the evening get-together, they reveal personal feelings about their lives and the consequences of the father's apparent choice to abandon his first family. Because the second one in the North has a tie to the South, the professional futures of its members face limitations. Along with the scenes between the brothers, there is the intrigue from possibly furtive spies, acts of poaching rare cultural artifacts, and arguments pro and con about reunification. The book has an especially edifying Introduction about Yi-Mun-yol.

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