Munyol, the prolific author of sixteen novels, more than fifty novellas and several works of political and social commentary, is one of Korea's most acclaimed writers. As such, U.S. readers might well expect more from Our Twisted Hero, his first book to be published in North America. A social allegory originally written in 1987, while Korea suffered under a strict dictatorship, Hero won the Yi sang award. Yi Munyol has won most of Korea's other prestigious literary awards for other works, and his books have sold millions of copies. Alas, the English prose of the novel may strike American readers as rigid. Whether it is the fault of a stiff translation, of the inevitable loss of meaning and fluidity when making the leap to a
different language, or of the complicated differences in tastes between two cultures, Our Twisted Hero's "classically unadorned style" simply seems inflexible.
The story itself has been compared to The Lord of the Flies with good reason. Although not as overtly violent as Golding's moralistic tale of the devolution of a group of marooned schoolboys, Our Twisted Hero also tells the tale of a power struggle between children that represents the flawed adult world. When twelve-year-old Han Pyongt'ae moves with his family from Seoul to a small town as a result of his father's demotion in the civil service, he nonetheless assumes that his cosmopolitan upbringing will increase his stature among his new classmates. He discovers that he couldn't be more wrong. His new fellows are led by a bigger, older boy who controls the class' loyalties and actions with a heavy fist in his role as class monitor. Since the class is so well-behaved, the teacher ignores the tactics of intimidation and force Om Sokdae employs not only to ensure good behavior but also to compel the other students to give him money, present him with reluctant gifts, even to take his exams for him.
Han Pyongt'ae is appalled at the others' unwillingness to depose the bully, and tries to take it upon himself to rectify the situation. His attempts to inform on Om Sokdae only make Han Pyongt'ae even more anathema to his schoolmates. Desperate for inclusion, the would-be reformer finds himself the corrupt monitor's right hand man. When a new teacher finally sees the corruption crippling the class, he forces the children to admit the truth of their oppression and to bring about the justice that will free them.
The power inherent in the idea of Our Twisted Hero is blunted by the novel's stilted delivery. Given Yi Munyol's standing as a man of literary accomplishments in his own country, one hopes that his next work to be published in the U.S. will translate better.