Seoul Survivor


At the heart of Yi Munyol’s Our Twisted Hero is the reign of terror of a particularly sophisticated schoolhouse bully who eventually gets his comeuppance. But to see it exclusively in those unalloyed terms is to miss its darker, knottier roots and the message its author wants to impart about the evil flora of totalitarian regimes and the muddy, messy chore of planting democracy.

Yi is considered South Korea’s most distinguished writer. In his prolific career, he has published 16 novels, 52 novellas, and two collections of essays and commentary. The recipient of scores of accolades, he is also a popular author with legions of fans. In some important ways, Yi is to South Korea what Amos Oz is to Israel, Nadine Gordimer to South Africa, and James Baldwin to the U.S. Like these writers, who have served as a conscience for their respective nations, Yi has experienced Cassandra periods, seeing the disasters ahead and being dismissed, even denounced, for his warnings. Our Twisted Hero is Yi’s dazzling classic, translated here in a smooth, bare-bones fashion by Kevin O’Rourke, a priest and English professor at Kyunghee University in South Korea.

Published in Korea in 1987, Our Twisted Hero was inspired by the Kwangju massacre of 1980, in which unarmed democracy demonstrators were confronted by South Korean soldiers who had been trained to battle the country’s archenemies in the North. After decades of waiting for a Communist invasion that never came, the soldiers seem to have unleashed their pent-up energy on their own people, slaughtering as many as 500 compatriots and wounding thousands. Though the carnage was investigated, trials held, compensation announced, and monuments erected to honor the dead, in the wake of South Korean president Kim Dae Jung’s recent receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, Kwangju is an ugly and undesirable reminder that Seoul—and what purports to be democracy—can be as despotic as any Communist foe.

Our Twisted Hero is Han Pyongt’ae, a boy from a fast-track Seoul school. He is transferred to a rural school when his parents leave the city to recover from a mild political sin they committed in South Korea’s highly regimented Cold War society. With a certain urban cockiness, Pyongt’ae assumes he’ll be at the head of the class in no time. But upon arrival Pyongt’ae is confronted with Om Sokdae, the class monitor, who runs the class with a velvet-gloved iron fist. Sokdae is physically formidable, but his real power resides in convincing teachers and other authority figures to depend on him to maintain order. In this way, everybody is, to one degree or another, part of Sokdae’s team of terror and thus morally compromised. Although Pyongt’ae doesn’t realize it at first, Sokdae also receives the best grades, with a scheme in which the best students in each subject secretly take exams for him, regularly catapulting him to the top of the class; meanwhile, Sokdae enjoys a kind of immunity among teachers and other adults, who resist the idea that a student that good can be a problem.

At first, Pyongt’ae believes he can just refuse to go along and that his example will be enough to inspire the others to break free of Sokdae. He imagines himself a hero. But he miscalculates: The classmates he assumed were longing to be free instead turn on him for disrupting their world. His reward for doing what’s right is a claustrophobic and horrible alienation. Even his parents, caught in their own web of woes, emotionally desert him. Pyongt’ae muses:

Of course, this does not mean that I took it all quietly on the chin. In my own way, I tried with all my strength and used all my wiles to improve the situation. One thing I tried was to mobilize my parents. Once I had completely given up on my teacher, I sought help from my father, unburdening on him the lonely, difficult fight in which I was embroiled. But ineffectuality had twisted Father into something different from what he once was, so that there wasn’t much difference between him and the cold, indifferent teacher.

Eventually, Pyongt’ae surrenders to Sokdae. But not long after, a new teacher brutally unmasks him, and his most ardent followers suddenly become his most vociferous and relentless persecutors. When his classmates suffer collective and selective amnesia about their own participation in Sokdae’s tyranny, Pyongt’ae is stunned, his life turned into a sea of doubt.

Yi doesn’t end Our Twisted Hero with Sokdae’s fall. He lets us see the giddy aftermath of newfound power through Pyongt’ae’s jaded eyes. Yes, the dictator is turned out and everyone is given voice. But sometimes the new cacophony is so unbearable that the dictator’s silence is remembered as music and even yearned for again. A bitter Pyongt’ae never recovers from his disillusionment.

In Our Twisted Hero, Yi’s warnings center on the South’s abuse of power and its need to preserve an image of contrast to the North. Yi’s tale about a school that seems to be in order even though its own students and faculty know better is really about how sometimes, in the quest to keep totalitarianism at bay, democracy itself may be trampled and perverted. This happened in Kwangju, and, years later, may have happened in the alliance Kim—the architect of North-South detente and a former dissident—forged with a corrupt ex-president to secure his country’s highest office. For Yi, there are few answers and at least one burning question: What cost democracy?