Yi Mun-yol: Son of Man
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
208pp. Dalkey Archive. Paperback, £11(US $16).978 1 62897 119 4
This year’s Man Booker International Prize was awarded to the South Korean novelist Han Kang and her translator Deborah Smith for The Vegetarian. Another translation from Korea has crept into the excitement with little fanfare, yet it fully deserves to attract the attention of readers internationally. Son of Man, by Kang’s fellow South Korean Yi Mun-yol, was first published in Korean nearly four decades ago and is still considered by many to be this prolific author’s finest work.
Son of Man explores Protestant Christianity in South Korea as it developed following the Korean War (1950–53). Yi’s mission to unravel various systems of belief is inflected by a deeply ingrained attachment to old Korea’s Confucian culture, which was strongly anticlerical and intimately concerned with social values. The book’s translator, Brother Anthony of Taizé, has mastered the wide-ranging cultural as well as linguistic demands of the original novel, making some radical decisions along the way, including the elimination of more than300 footnotes and their absorption into the main body of the text. The result is a readable translation that gives a striking impression of the author’s voice: “It was an old building,barely more than a shack, but flashily equipped with glass windows only on the side facing the street, like an old whore’s make-up”.
What could have been a hefty, indigestible chunk of religious philosophy is made compelling by Yi Mun-yol’s bold decision to fold his various religious narratives into the conventions of a classic detective story. The book’s quest for religious truths segues in and out of a search for a missing person, which is carried out by a disenchanted detective. Like all the best fiction, Son of Man constantly deflects even while it grips, and although the author draws the novel’s various strands to a neat conclusion, he leaves the reader questioning dogmas both literary and religious."
- Francesca Rhydderch, The Times Literary Supplement, July 22, 2016
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