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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

     

Son of Man

by
Yi Mun-yol


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Son of Man



Title: Son of Man
Author: Yi Mun-yol
Genre: Novel
Written: 1979 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 247 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Son of Man - US
Son of Man - UK
Son of Man - Canada
Son of Man - India
Le fils de l'homme - France
Il figlio dell'uomo - Italia
  • Korean title: 사람의 아들
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Brother Anthony of Taizé

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Our Assessment:

A- : unusual but surprisingly successful

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 20/7/2016 Francesca Rhydderch


  From the Reviews:
  • "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, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Son of Man is a police procedural; it is also very far from your usual mystery novel -- though it's worth noting that even the fairly traditional resolution isn't entirely run of the mill, with the perpetrator having found a rather clever (and obviously successful) way of deflecting any immediate suspicion regarding the crime. Yi is not primarily a crime-writer, here or elsewhere, but he's familiar enough with the genre and its tricks to play a nice one of his own, and the way the resolution is presented as the novel comes full-circle should impress even die-hard mystery fans.
       The novel begins when a man in his early thirties, soon identified as Min Yoseop, is found stabbed to death on a mountain path, and Sergeant Nam becomes obsessed by what becomes a drawn-out case. The police go about investigating the crime as they normally would, trying to learn as much about the victim and those he had dealings with as possible. Officers, including Sergeant Nam, are sent to various places across South Korea to gather up clues and information, and while they at least get a better idea of who the murdered man was no obvious suspects or motives emerge. Indeed, soon enough:

Sergeant Nam was convinced that the case could never be solved by pursuing motives of greed, jealousy, or ordinary personal animosity. He began to feel a strong enmity toward Lieutenant Lee, who was recklessly trying to steer the investigation in that direction
       Lee's ideas don't get them anywhere, and the case threatens to become a cold one; after three months the investigation team is disbanded, and Sergeant Nam is assigned to lead a rump-team to follow up what limited leads there are. At least this allows Nam to do things largely his way -- and with occasional news still trickling in, of where Min Yoseop and his apparent acolyte, person of interest Cho Dongpal, had passed through over the years, the police slowly complete the picture and track down the final clues. The picture only slowly comes together, however -- and one key to it is a novel that Min Yoseop had apparently written, which Sergeant Nam finds and slowly struggles to make his way through: yes, Son of Man is a two-in-one novel, too, with the secondary fictional narrative taking up much of the book.
       Min Yoseop had been an orphan, adopted by a missionary. He had studied philosophy at university for two years before switching to a seminary, excelling at his studies wherever he went -- but burning out. As one of his professors at the seminary explains:
He was more interested in the pursuit of knowledge than in faith, and inevitably he ran out of energy. [...] We could not accept him under those conditions. Even if he was intellectually brilliant, we could not allow him to shake the foundations of belief.
       Min was put off by the traditional Judeo-Christian 'God' -- whose: "unfair system of rewards and punishments also encourages and nurtures you in your so-called sins". He sought a different, idealized-Christian way (going so far as to deny the 'Christ--part, too, however). Wherever he went, Min Yoseop seemed to try to do good, helping those less fortunate and giving away what money he had. Cho Dongpal, also a stellar student, got to know him while Cho was still a teenager, and was apparently completely won over by Min's thinking (and what he devoted his life to) and became a devoted, even militant disciple -- almost, it seems, too much so for Min's liking.
       Min's novel is an alternate-Christ story, its central character a man born at the same time, called Ahasuerus -- and presented as the "true Son of Man". Ahasuerus is a seeker, much like Min, and he's not enthusiastic about the Biblical god of the day, arguing that: "a god of such jealousy, wrath, and capriciousness" didn't sound like the real deal.
       Much of Min's novel is a quest tale, as Ahasuerus explores the other religions of the day (and of long ago), searching for a more satisfying deity. Yi manages to make this historical-theological tour entertaining, with Ahasuerus' adventures far from solely (or dryly) intellectual -- though Min does occasionally tire of this stuff ("The novel's protagonist now seemed to simply be playing intellectual games in antiquated spaces of history"). But then this danger of Min's fiction getting just a bit too rarefied and cerebral is of course why Yi presents it only as a novel-within-a-novel, and alternates it with the greater immediacy of the modern murder investigation.
       In fact, however, Min's novel also gets pretty exciting, as Ahasuerus returns to Judae after his travels and repeatedly encounters and confronts Jesus. He is not a fan:
I know who you are. You are the false Son of Man, Son of the Most High and Self-Righteous; you have come to kindle an even greater fire on this already charred land; you have come as heir to one who lays an outdated claim to ownership of our vineyard, which we have been tending on our own; you have come like a proxy for an unjust creditor to demand repayment of a debt of five hundred denarii that we never borrowed.
       Min's novel cleverly spins variations on several of the famous New Testament tales, with Ahasuerus repeatedly trying to convince Jesus to do the right thing -- and criticizing Jesus' actions:
First you excite us with petty miracles, then you ground salvation uniquely on the righteousness of the Word, determined to punish our guiltless unbelief ...
       Of course, we know how the story ends (though even here Min presents the alternate explanations that throw a very different light on the Jesus-story). And, of course, this debate carried over into Min's reality, and it's hardly a surprise that it led to his death.
       Son of Man works surprisingly well: the police procedural is fairly simple, but certainly adequate; what really works, however, is both Yi's philosophical-theological speculative fiction -- Min's novel could stand fairly easily and well as a compelling and worthwhile stand-alone work -- and how that is integrated into the murder-mystery. There's an impressive depth to this novel, and it is provocative on multiple levels -- and its alternate-Christ story is a fairly inspired one, too.
       In his Introduction translator Brother Anthony of Taizé notes that Son of Man has: "become such an iconic work among Korean students that it has sold some two million copies". One can understand why: this was Yi's first novel, but it is a very good, and major, work, and one that will continue to be of interest -- and should be to 'Western' audiences as well.
       In his Introduction Brother Anthony also notes that the English version differs some from the original Korean, notably in the elimination of 335 footnotes, with some of the information instead "inserted into the body of the text" but, apparently, a lot simply ignored ("In many other cases, the information offered seemed not to be needed for a full understanding of the novel"). Even more troublingly -- though it was done: "With the author's agreement" ... -- several pages on Ahasuerus' Zoroastrian experiences were cut -- even though: "after he had left Mesopotamia he had transformed into a Zoroastrian priest", and it sounds like it would have been interesting to hear more about that, not just how he was chased away.
       The translator suggests doing away with the footnotes was okay because, after all: "Such an apparatus is not a usual feature of works of fiction published in English". No less or more so than in Korean fiction, I'd suggest -- and if the original had them the English version should too. Same with the Zoroastrian stuff. Fidelity to the original is far too rarely paramount in translation, but surely this takes text-meddling too far.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 December 2015

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Links:

Son of Man: Reviews: Other books by Yi Munyol under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       (South) Korean author Yi Mun Yol (이문열, Yi Munyol, Yi Mun-yol) was born in 1948. He has won numerous literary prizes, and his work has been translated into several foreign languages.

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