‘Pilon’s Pig’ by Yi Mun-yol (Review)

IMG_5462After a bit of a gap, I’ve recently been reading some more Korean literature, and as I was scouring the shelves, I stumbled across a small book I’d forgotten all about.  It’s the last of the books Asia Publishers sent me a good while back from the Modern Korean Literature series, a story by one of my favourite Korean writers, Yi Mun-yol, and while it doesn’t take long to read, there’s certainly more to it than meets the eye – even if the title seems a little bizarre…

Pilon’s Pig (translated by Jamie Chang) is a story from the 1980s which takes place over a short period of time in one carriage of a train.  Lee, a soldier who has completed his three years of national service, is on his way home but, owing to a lack of money, reluctantly decides to take the military train.  He immediately regrets his decision when he bumps into Hong, a slightly dim-witted man with whom he did his initial training, yet that’s nothing to what happens once the train gets going.

A few minutes into the journey, a group of marines enters the carriage, demanding money (for booze…) in exchange for the dubious pleasure of a song.  While most, including Lee, grudgingly pay up, some of the soldiers are less willing to give up their money, and things turn nasty.  As Lee (the eyes of the reader) looks on, we see what happens when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time – and whether the right response to violence can ever be more violence…

Pilon’s Pig is a clever story, with far more to it than it would appear on the surface.  Initially, it’s all about Lee, a character we’re encouraged to identify with, and when he meets up with the oafish Hong, he notices how the former farmer has changed (not for the better):

Nonetheless, Hong chattered on excitedly.
“I had my superiors eatin’ outta my hand.  They wanted so much as a bag’a rice, they had to git it through me.  Thanks’a that, I spent my weekends at the village pub.  I had a stash’a ramen noodles and rice all to myself.  No one could touch it.”
Listening to Hong’s story, which was likely fabricated by stringing other soldiers’ anecdotes together, Lee noticed how much Hong had changed.  Rather than being impressed by the life skills Hong picked up in the army, Lee lamented the transformation of an innocent farmer into a mediocre crook.

p.19 (Asia Publishers, 2013)

Lee, who mostly worked in an office towards the end of his army stint, looks down on a colleague who is proud to have bludged his way through his service.

However, this interplay between the two is merely the frame for the story, which doesn’t really start until the marines burst through the door.  They’re obvious symbols of power and authority, people Lee isn’t about to stand up to, but others will.  Several of the soldiers dare to stand out from the crowd, taking different approaches with differing results.  One soldier, determined not to pay, appeals to the others in the carriage:

“You fools!  Isn’t it enough that we put up with this for three years?  You’re going to let ’em piss all over you again?  On your way home?” (p.41)

Despite the aggressive nature of the newcomers, the reality is that it’s just a handful of marines against a hundred men.  Will the newly-discharged soldiers rise up?  What will happen if they do?

Of course, Pilon’s Pig isn’t really about the men in the train, but rather another allegory of Korean society in the 1980s, a tale examining the reality of tyranny of the few over the many.  Lee, the typical everyman, is positioned as a witness to the (social) turmoil, knowing that the military police will only turn up when it’s too late.  Surprisingly, the idea here is not really to support the uprising but to wonder whether it’s better to just keep your head down and not make waves.

It’s a shortish story, but well-told and thought-provoking, doing what it set out to do and finishing before it outstays its welcome.  It’s helped by Chang’s translation, one of the better ones I’ve read from this early series (where the translations haven’t always been as smooth as in the later K-Fiction series).  There’s a fairly American feel to the dialogue, with Chang making an interesting choice in conveying Hong’s country accent (as you may have noticed in the first quotation I featured…).  As always, there’s also an interesting afterword, particularly so when it comes to the writer’s biography.  Yi is seen as a conservative writer (for which he has been heavily criticised), and this bio helps to explain why that is, with much made of his father’s defection to the North while the writer was still a young child.

Whatever your political views, Pilon’s Pig is an entertaining story, but you’re probably still wondering about that title.  It actually refers to an anecdote Lee tells to round off the piece, where a man on a rough sea crossing wonders how to react when all around are panicking.  His decision to follow the lead of a pig on board, and sleep through it all, reflects Lee’s desire to stay safe – but it does seem a rather un-writerlike reaction to government repression…

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