‘Son of Man’ by Yi Mun-yol (Review)

It’s been a while since I tried anything from the Dalkey Archive Library of Korean Literature series (mainly because the review copies I received of the latest selections were, unfortunately, only in digital form), but I’ve managed to find time for another of them to round off my month’s reviewing.  Yi Mun-yol is a name regular readers should be familiar with, and today’s choice is actually the Korean author’s debut novel, dating all the way back to 1979.  It starts off as a detective novel, but in truth it’s anything but.  This is just the set-up for a story about the importance of faith, and what happens when you begin to doubt what you believe in…

Son of Man (translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé) begins at a Daegu police station, where Sergeant Nam Gyeongho, a long-serving but fairly low-ranking detective, is listening in on the interrogation of a man accused of kicking a woman in the street.  He’s quickly out on more urgent business, though, when news comes through of the discovery of a dead body in a nearby region, and while the identity of the deceased, Min Yoseop, isn’t hard to come by, other details are rather scarce.  As a result, Nam sets off on a journey to follow up any trace of Min’s existence, hoping to find out how the man spent the last few years of his life

Hard evidence proves hard to come by, and at first the only real progress Nam makes is the discovery of a manuscript Min was working on.  Despite his rather limited literary capabilities, the detective decides that the text may just contain clues as to why Min returned to Daegu, and shed light on what he’s been doing for the past few years.  Instead, Nam is confronted with an allegorical novel set two thousand years ago, a story reimagining the life of a rather controversial figure, and he must decide whether the text really does have a bearing on the investigation.

Son of Man is frequently described as a detective novel with a difference, and the difference is that it’s not really a detective novel at all; to be honest, there are times when you suspect the frame could have been dispensed with completely.  The true core of the novel is the fascinating story of Ahasuerus, the semi-mythical ‘Wandering Jew’ of Biblical fame, one that actually occupies the bulk of Yi’s work.  We meet him as an intelligent youth, the product of a devout home and destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a religious leader – until, that is, he encounters a man on the streets one day.  The self-proclaimed false messiah Thedos spends a day taking him through Jerusalem, showing him what life is really about:

“Were not people suffering and dying at the very moment when the priests and teachers were proclaiming at the top of their voices the Word in all its beauty and hope?  The Word was unable to fill the bellies of the hungry or clothe the naked.  It was unable to protect people from crime and from disease; it was powerless against misery and misfortune.  At this very moment, many thousand times the number of people you have seen today are dying pointlessly in pain, believing in the superstition of the Word.”
p.44 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2015)

Having had his eyes opened to the true ways of the world, Ahasuerus decides that his people’s view of God is a lie, and this realisation compels him to leave his homeland in the hope of finding the true face of God elsewhere.

We do return to Korea from time to time, and as Nam slowly begins to piece together Min’s movements throughout the missing years, the parallels between his nomadic lifestyle and Ahasuerus’ epic journey become ever clearer.  In fact, over the course of the investigation, the author creates a layer of journeys, with Nam trudging wearily from Daegu to Seoul, from Busan to Daejon, just as Min did before him.  Every stop he makes provides more information, and the picture that gradually emerges is of a religious man who, despite his disillusionment with orthodox beliefs, continued to believe in a gospel of trust and forgiveness, gathering followers around him at every stage of his journey.  Which sounds a lot like another historical figure…

With Nam disappearing (into his reading) for large stretches of the novel, you could be forgiven for thinking that there’s very little Korean about Son of Man (and it’s certainly the least Korean Korean book I’ve read).  Yi uses the internal narrative of the novel to reflect on the nature of Christianity and its God, one who certainly can seem cruel and jealous at times, and the conclusions he comes to, particularly when Ahasuerus finally comes face to face with another famous son of man, are fascinating (although I suspect not all Christians will be as accepting of his speculations…).  There’s plenty here, in terms of both content and style, that reminds me of another of this year’s reads, Amos Oz’s Judas, with the Israeli writer’s explanations of the dark disciple’s actions resembling the Korean author’s attempts to justify those of Ahasuerus.

Yet if you read between the lines, there’s a little more of a Korean flavour to Son of Man than you might think.  Quite apart from the process of Nam’s investigation, there are several glimpses throughout the novel of a country where life doesn’t run quite as smoothly as many would have you believe.  The comical arrest that starts the novel has a social cause, with the young man taking offence at the young woman’s attire:

“One pair of boots like that… could keep several pairs… of frozen feet warm.  Just beside the road where that woman was passing… a kid was begging, wearing nothing but rubber slippers on her bare feet, lying on the ground shivering…”. (p.44)

The detective’s visit to the capital reveals that religious leaders aren’t exempt from the sins of gluttony and avarice, with Min’s troubles there caused by clashes with an unscrupulous pastor.  Later, when Nam makes it to Busan, he finds out that Min worked at the docks for a while, but was eventually forced to move on after causing trouble among the workers – and by trouble, I mean standing up for the exploited and trying to defend their rights.  Just as was the case in ancient Jerusalem, life may have been wonderful for some people in the Korea of the 1970s, but not everyone benefited from the economic boom.

There’s a lot to like here, and Brother Anthony has done a wonderful job with the text (I suspect that having worked on it for a number of years, he left very little for the Dalkey editors to do).  The parallels between Min and Ahasuerus are also cleverly done, with the reader gradually seeing a strong connection between the two men.  Having said that, there are elements of the novel that might put the average reader off.  The story of Ahasuerus, a lengthy narrative focused primarily on a search for information on ancient deities, might be a little too esoteric for some, and while there are similarities with Judas, the major difference between the two works is in the way the writers handle the delicate balance between the present and fictional sections of the novel.  Unfortunately, Yi’s attention is very much on his wandering Jew, meaning that Nam is a fairly two-dimensional creation, one who pops in and out of the story when required.  As for the crime aspect of the novel, few readers will struggle to work out very quickly where the story is going, even if we’ll have to take a few long-distance bus journeys to get there…

There are glimpses of Korean issues peeking through the surface of Son of Man, but it’s a book that will be enjoyed most by readers prepared to consider Yi’s theological musings.  I doubt that his revelation will be enough to shake anyone’s faith, but in his decision to allow Ahasuerus to defend his actions, the author has produced a fascinating perspective on the origins of Christianity, and that’s certainly enough to warrant giving the work a try.

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