I haven’t read a lot of Korean fiction lately. Of course, I haven’t read a lot of fiction lately, so that is part of why. But after a conversation in which this book came up, I decided to pick it up and try again, after having set it down twenty pages in, a year or two ago. I’ve been ill this weekend, and needing a break from grading, so I’ve read two short novels so far, of which this is the second.
Our Twisted Hero is quite transparently an allegory of the process of dictatorship — especially the cult-of-personality type of dictatorship so familiar from both North and South Korean modern history, set within a class at a school in the South Korean countryside, probably in the early 1960s (I’m guessing in 1961 or 1962).
In that, it is probably the closest thing in Korean literature to William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, except that it is not about little boys going feral, so much as about little boys living within a kind of authoritarian social system within their school, and a boy named Han Pyongt’ae who finds himself in their midst when he moves from Seoul and transfers to the school (and that particular class).
At the apex of the mini-fiefdom in that particular class is a boy named Om Sokdae, a boy who has a solid grip on power and rules not only through fear, but with the complicity of the teacher himself. When Han challenges Om’s rule, noting that this is not how things are done in Seoul, he is punished severely. Here is where readers find a parallel with Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, for Han eventually is so abused and hurt by his experience that he finally becomes Om’s biggest supporter, and indeed his right-hand man.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, seems to be the lesson that Han learns, and when he discovers Om’s one weakness — that he maintains his 98% academic average by having a number of other boys write his exams for him — Han decides to do nothing. By this point, he is drunk on the power afforded him by Om, and very much in his dictator’s thrall. Things, of course, change when a new teacher takes charge of the class, and indeed that’s when things truly get interesting.
I found myself somewhere between amused and disgusted to run across a few reviews of the book which specifically mentioned Rhee Syngman, Chun Doohwan, and Roh Taewoo, but didn’t mention Park Chung-Hee at all. I can’t help but wonder whether there’s a little of the Park Chung Hee syndrome affecting those reviewers. After all, it seems to me that Park is the most likely candidate for the type of figure Yi is most likely trying to present in the character of Om: he was seen as charismatic, as an ensurer of order, as a “great leader” and remains so even to this day in the minds of many South Koreans, and the addiction that Han experiences to the cult of Om Sokdae seems to me to be best embodied by the cult of Park Chung Hee that is alive and well here.
In any case, what I found most interesting in the book was the narrator’s meditation on the problem of complicity. We are attracted to power, and as humans that seems to be one of our great, deep failings, one of our profound vulnerabilities. When we live in a society where power translates into money, we are even more vulnerable to this addiction, and it seems as if Yi broaches this toward the end of the book, when Om reemerges, apparently triumphant, in an adult world that resembles the authoritarian schoolroom experience much more than the fractious, disorganized, and deeply democratic mode of classroom organization that followed Om’s eventual dethronement.
That is to say, Yi argues that the adult world of 1986 or 1987 (when the book was published) was essentially like the classroom when it was run by Om Sokdae: not just in that it was an authoritarian regime, but in that the authoritarian regime could survive only because of the complicity of the masses. Today, people like to imagine the pro-democracy movement a bit like the way French people like to imagine the resistance to the Nazis: as if everyone was involved and fighting for freedom. The truth is sadder and more sordid, if also more human: most people were complicit with their authoritarian oppressors because they were afraid of them, so afraid that on some deep, brutalized level, many people finally fell into a kind of twisted love with them.
For me, this sheds new light on one aspect of Park Chung Hee Syndrome — the phenomenon by which so many South Koreans cling to a positive image of their most long-running dictator, and are intolerant of any criticism of the man, defending him against all accusations, however true they might be. It’s a bit like admitting you married a crazy person (and, yes, actually loved them), or hired a sociopath to work in your office, after he charmed you in the interview: psychologically, it’s very difficult to admit you were manipulated, or that you made a ridiculously, obviously poor judgment. It’s much easier to defend the judgment with all kinds of excuses and justifications, and that, indeed, is precisely the kind of resistance one gets from those who continue to worship Park Chung Hee: he was good for the economy, he was a great leader, the country needed him… Now, at least, I feel like I know where all that passion comes from when these justifications are trotted out: people aren’t just defending Park, they’re defending themselves for having fallen in love with him and having supported his regime even against their own deep instinct that something serious was wrong, despite the complicity of everyone around them.
It’s not bad, though I must admit it was the seemingly-perfunctory language of the translation that put me off the first time. Still, perhaps Yi in the original text wrote in a plain style, so I’m not sure to what degree one can blame Kevin O’Rourke for that aspect of the text. I did find his choice of which words to leave in Korean funny — the one that stands out in my mind is the often-used “sekki” (which could be rendered a number of ways, such as “fucker” or “asshole”). Leaving that word in Korean seems to me to rob it some some of its sordid vindictiveness, if you ask me.
Anyway, the book is a quick read, and despite being put off the first time I tried it, I think it’s actually worth your while, if you have a couple of hours to spare.
As for me, I’d like to see the film, if I can get a chance. I’m curious how a story like this plays out on the screen. Among other things, it certainly seems to be one solution to the widespread convention of Korean characters not exercising agency: unlike in a lot of stories, at least in this story, the character tries it, is punished, and then refuses to exert it. His non-exertion of agency becomes a critical part of the narrative, and that makes it work in a certain sort of way.