2018 Sejong Writing Competition
Winning Entries :: Essays :: Adult first place
first place, adult essay division
Yi Mun-yol's Reconsideration of the Nameless Other
To recognize the unknown is to acknowledge differences from selfhood. Justification hinders on one’s mutual understanding between themselves and the Other, a complex grasp for parallels amidst the highly tangible arena of unfamiliarity. But what can we sew together from these threads of ambiguity? Nowhere is this question more pertinent than in Yi Mun-yol’s novella. Indeed much of what Yi’s writing conveys is unexplainable. In many ways, this speaks volumes to the separation between North and South Korea, just as it epitomizes itself within the relationships between the narrator and his brother, as well as the unification man and the businessman. Looking at these relationships within the novella forces readers to reconsider how dissimilar perspectives bring about not only our inevitable differences, but also, our inherent sameness.
Perhaps the most significant quality of these two relationships is that Yi deliberately leaves these four men unnamed. Yet when the narrator meets his brother for the first time, we are alerted immediately to the similarities in their outward appearances, especially in regards to their deceased father: “His face was almost a replica of my father’s” (26). This marks the first introduction in the novella, leaving our fears to match with those of the narrator. Yet even more similarities are present, countering this apprehension by commenting on how they share alcohol together. Not only does the narrator notice this, but his brother’s feelings are mutual, as seen by him saying: “you remind me so strongly of Father when you drink” (38). Despite these observations, Yi still does not shy away from presumptions about their differences. The protagonist cannot escape the perceptions about the North, just as his brother feels the weight of his own conjectures. As the protagonist attempts to hide his affluence and “defended myself hastily”, the brother feels the reality of his struggling situation through his attack: “Do you want to hear we’re starving?” (36, 34). Still, the brother and protagonist unite on the justifications of familial lineage and ideology. Traditional funeral rites hold equal importance, thus creating transcendence beyond the liminal borders of the North and South. In some ways, their father’s death is what truly brings them together in the face of their ideological differences, inspiring them to complete the “traditional ritual called ‘offering from afar’” (41). What can this say about death? Even in its most basic form, Yi uses death not only as the unification, but also as the tradition to illuminate a cultural thread of similitude, for neither of them are ever “deficient in piety” (42). More importantly, the ambiguous identity of the characters breaks a boundary between the reader and the story. Thus, we are able to fully identify with these people, realizing that we are not truly separated from their situation. An opposition to this phenomenon is present between the unification man and the businessman (13,16). Once again by leaving them unnamed, readers get the sense of a commonality, that means both of these characters could be any person. Nonetheless a key difference in this relationship focuses how each character is unable to find any similarities between them. The unification man is seen as disillusioned, who made “lamentations on the lost glory of our country and nation” (13). The businessman is untrustworthy, the “thief…here to smuggle out cultural treasures” (54). Hence Yi creates an ironic paradox between each of these pairs. The brothers themselves, while hailing from different countries, converge on the basis of mutual respect for family. The unification man and businessman, however, while originating in the same country, diverge on the conflictions of their foreign practices, focusing on the “commodity” that makes them “fated to be antagonists” (56, 60). In this way, Yi presents the Other as a foil within itself. It is not only a person outside of your home, for indeed the Other could be one’s own neighbor. At the same time, the Other does not have to be a foreign entity, making it possible to find harmony among the aliens.
Yi’s reconsideration of the nameless Other transcends the boundaries between humanistic perceptions. In other words, this novella debunks many of the perceptions people carry about the unknown. By leaving these four characters ambiguous, readers are left to grapple with who these people truly are. In fact, they can be both everyone and no one. Yi’s focus therefore is not on labels, but on sentiment. The brothers are more connected with each other than the two men solely from South Korea. This creates a commentary on the hypocrisy surrounding each country’s stigmas. Yi’s message is not to demote reunification, but to instead portray how misinformed media and personal expectations derail such opportunities. Yi ultimately challenges readers on how they view the Other, surpassing the North and South Korean dispute to revaluate humanity’s condition. To acknowledge the Other is to acknowledge the self.