Lee Mun-Yeol, Voice of Korea in the Literary Age of Transition.
A thematic approach to a study of two of his stories: “The Old Hatter” and “An Appointment with his Brother.” student of literature who finds interest in fiction’s historical settings gets inveigled into the stark realities of war and conquest, its horrifying and insidious effects on the lives of innocent people caught helplessly in its clutches – the pain, the hunger, the loss of lives of loved ones.
The reader gets the autobiographical drift of Lee’s two stories – he was there when all those things he writes about happened. In “An appointment with his Brother,” as the oldest son by his father’s first family, he knew what it was to be abandoned by his father and to be cared for and brought up by a youthful mother.
Yet there is no bitterness in the tone of his writing. There was only acceptance of what had to be – a father leaving his family to seek greener pastures and the unavoidable exigencies of war and occupation. The father had to endure the ignommy of working as a civil engineer in North Korea when he was a professor of economics. The eldest son understood what the father had to endure under the communist occupation in South Korea – changes in the North Korean society, the loss of the old values so prized by the older generation but still kept and adhered to by the remaining members of the family. The eldest son for instance would still observe the tradition of honoring the memory of the departed father and other departed ancestors and he being the oldest son would lead in the complicated ceremonies.
There were many values the younger brother and most likely the younger generations, would not understand at all but to his credit, the younger brother tried to understand.
At one point when the eldest son and the younger brother were commemorating the memory of the dead father, the oldest son started crying. He thought he was crying because of his father’s failure but he soon realized that he was crying “for himself.” He cried for the “miseries and pains of my past for which no possibility of compensation of any kind remained, and I wept for my spirit which became distorted in the process of my struggle for survival, while I vowed to stay alive until ‘that day.’
The writer shudders at the accusations hurled at him by the “grassroots” and “nationalist” historians believing he had exchanged the old world values for the new ones. The writer and his wife had acquired new properties but they were modest ones which they had bought with loans and hard earnings.
When the oldest son ended the ceremony for the dead he offered the remaining wine and food to the younger brother and they started discussing the hills planted to chestnuts. The fact the younger brother knew about the back hills of his father’s hometown warmed the eldest son’s heart.
Love and reverence for their country of birth is very evident in the words of the two brothers – the oldest brother defending South Korea and the changes that have taken place there; the younger brother defending North Korea and even its cache of nuclear weapons. Obviously both brothers have received divergent orientations – the eldest brother fiercely clinging to old values, customs and rites; the younger brother, a product of the new generation of Koreans, outgoing, open-minded, keeping their eyes open to what would bring progress, wealth and security to their country.
A find the story “The Old Hatter” sad and disconcerting. Why should the old hatter stick to an occupation – the business of making hats out of horse hair when they’re no longer in vogue, when people don’t wear them anymore? One realized that while it may seem illogical and unrealistic, the old would obstinately stick to what to them were important – the national heritage, the old customs, traditions, values – the old culture, the importance the old people attached to a way of life, no matter if it is no longer in vogue.
The old hatter is a pitiful one yet the reader realized that the youth were stealing and making fun of him but he made them pay for the loss of his horse hair. They paid in money and in the lashes they got when they were caught.
A lesson learned here is that the glory of the past is being sucked into the modern world and what have you got to show for it? Everything changes – even time-honored traditions but what is most disheartening is the loss of the spiritual heritage that had inspired and sustained the members of the writer’s clan.
What the writer decries most is the decline of old learning – the teaching of Confucuis, and of Buddhist teachers.
What about the old morality? Lee says it went the way of the old learning. Morality was not as intensely practised as it used to be before. People now think nothing of public display of affection. Modernity now holds sway – fashion has changed the way the young dress while walking on the streets arm in arm, laughing and giggling without regard to the onlookers’ obvious disapproval.
Love of country or friend are offset by personal selfishness. Codes on relationships between clanmen are now disregarded. What Korea has now are common interest groups; loyalty to the clan and close clan solidarity is no longer existent. Respect and reverence for ancestors and the elders are on the wane. The spirit of the dead who are the sole protectors of the living ignored.
Even the old myths, legends and creations of the old which used to delight the minds of children are now discredited by scientific explanations.
The writer laments the disappearance of the old religion. Heaven may be silent but still answers the prayers of honest men. It is therefore important to obey the will of Heaven and to abide by the laws of nature. Now, sad to say, this old religion has vanished together with the many deities who stood as our guardians.
The marketplace, a magnificent symbol of old Korea has disappeared. The blind fortuneteller now has but a few customers. The place of the geomancer is filled with dust. The churchbell still rings every Sunday but it now tolls the death knell to the beautiful heritage that has passed away.
The old hatter’s shop remains untouched. The old man continues to ply, his old trade despite constant losses. How does the old hatter continue to do business? It was a constant battle against poverty and change. In the final analysis, it did not seem so ridiculous a situation anymore. We now see the old and the new from a different perspective. We see in the old man the fate of the writer’s clan as it was slowly being sucked by history.
The old man in the end became a living symbol of all that has vanished, his words an epitaph in a “dead language in the ruins of a dead city.” He lived on by selling every piece of property he owned. His shop was his last bulwark and he leaned on to it for strength.
Finally when there was no hope for his horse hair hat business, he sold his last remaining property and left in search of “the blue bamboo.” When he returned with the idea that there’s no blue bamboo, he set about preparing one with silk thread. The finished priceless hat would be for the last man wearing horsehair hat but this last man died before he could finish the hat. He finished the hat to give to a man who had shorn off his hair. He realized that the hat belonged to the man he truly believed to be deserving – but that man lay in a grave. So he laid the hat on a pile of dead leaves and burnt it.
He entered his home and never left it until one day he just died. His daughter sold his shop and never came back again.
The Old Hatter is the eternal symbol of the death and passing away of everything we holds most precious in life.
This in essence is what the two stories of Lee are trying to make us feel and mull over.
In succinctly beautiful words he paints graphic pictures of people, places, things and events in Korea. He is most effective in contrasting North and South Korea, its forces and polices as they affected the residents, the old and the young.
The propensity for conservatism is evident. Like any man past his fifties he displayed dismay and disapproval over countrymen touring Beijing and, other places in China or Korea acting like westerners wearing tight-fitting pants or culottes, cameras slung on their necks. There was disdain in his attitude as he refused to meet them or talk to them as he would in the past.
There is a somber touch in his two stories born of regret at what division had done to Korea – dividing not only land and country but also people and alienating countrymen against countrymen.
The writer has also become a cynical writer – suspecting even countrymen of self-interest-keeping secrets to themselves so that they may be saved from harassment and suspicion, so that they may not be held in jail on charges of treason or disloyalty to the government.
Korean History as Background of the stories of Lee Mun-Yeol: Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 13, pp. 465-467.
With the so-called “opening” of Korea in 1876, there was a corresponding movement toward social modernization. The revolt actually started in 1884 but its effect could be felt only in the next decade. By the time of the 1894 reforms, visible and palpable changes could be felt to prove the distinct division between traditional and modern literature. In the same manner that obstinate conservative reaction did not condone sudden changes in the political and social structure, it was inevitable that literature too had to undergo a long period of transition toward its modern transformation.”
Schools were established by government decree in 1895, learned societies and “enlightenment movements” followed as cultural modernization began towards modern education and the “new-life movement.” The Korean language was perceived in a new light. There followed a systematization of the Korean grammar. All these helped pave the way for the modern literary movement. The new novel (“sinsosol”) and song (“changga”) developed situated midway between traditional and modern literature, strongly influenced by the adaptation of foreign literary works and the rewriting of traditional literature.
The writer Lee Mun-Yeol is a product of the modern Korean era whose writings depict changes in a way of life which the old members of society of the clan refused to accept. The “Old Hatter” is a vivid example of a man living the past and in its glories and refusing to accept new changes. When one refuses to go with the tide of change, one loses all that is physical and slow death and a withering away of the spiritual and psychological could only be the result. It is a slow painful death which the old hatter could only accept. Death is the only and inevitable way out. The daughter’s disposal of the shop by selling it to the first bidder proves how resistance to change could be overcome in one swift movement of disposal. Then all evidence of a past way of life is disposed of very, very swiftly.
In his other story “An Appointment with his Brother” Lee depicts differences between the two brothers, one born in the old Korean border, the other in the new. In this story, Lee paints changes in North Korea represented by the younger brother to whom the oldest son tries patiently to explain old conservative but venerable customs and ceremonies and which the younger brother accepts while adhering to the new beliefs and ways imposed by a new political and social structure in life. He graciously bows to the old while manifesting adherence to the new.
Yet the close bonding of the two brothers is very evident the patient explanation by the old is kindly understood and recognized by the young.
The story ends with the strong bonds of love and affection manifesting in each one referring to the other’s mother as “our mother” – that I believe is a proof of the close ties between members of the family that they are “one” family and there should only be acceptance, recognition and above all, reverence.
Lee’s second story ends on a hopeful note – that in spite of changes, love and affection can triumph in a family where basic values have been ungrained in the consciousness of its members, where the elders have seen to the instilling of true values – spiritual, emotional and psychological in the minds and hearts of its members from childhood.
There is a vast difference in the endings of the two stories. The Old Hatter ends on a somber note of total despair – there is not a single note of relief – there is only death and nothingness.
On the other hand, an appointment with his Brother makes the reader feel that in all the sordidness and ugliness of life, there are redeeming elements: filial love and affection can create a semblance of hope and happiness in this world.
Lee Mun Yeol is truly a great writer who could penetrate the deepest and farthest corner of the reader’s heart. He is the period writer representing an age where life and its different aspects are chaotic – this was Korean after its darkest moments.
The stories are told totally from the point-of-view of the writer speaking through his characters.
Somebody said, Mr. Lee was a sad man – indeed there was a sadness that could not be contained in his story “The Old Hatter” – there is only despair.
The author rallies in his second story, an Appointment with His Brother – here the theme is that there is hope at the bend in the road – the family is the solid foundation of what we can still hope for in this life – this is an entirely Asian Eastern concept.
A marvel at Lee’s grasp of the language – he seems to be at home in a foreign tongue. While the recognition of Korean literature is comparatively young, the Korean writers led by Lee Mun Yeol have achieved utmost popularity and recognition as some of the best writers in the world. There is much of local color in the stories of Lee – the characters are distinctly set apart from the rest of the world. This makes them distinctly different.
Bibliography www.sogang.ac.kr.Korean Literature Today.
Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 13, pp. 465-467.
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