Author Miri Yū takes up the turbulent lives of her maternal grandfather I Uchoru and his younger brother by 13 years, I Ugun, in this novel, weaving an exquisite tapestry that mixes fiction with her own family’s biographical details and the broader history of Japan and Korea over the span of a century on either side of World War II.
Born in Korea in 1912 when the peninsula was under occupation by Japan, Uchoru belongs to a generation that has never known an independent Korea. Japan established an oppressive administration over the colony, forcing Koreans to learn Japanese and adopt Japanese names. Miryang, where the first half of the novel is set, is a town that has produced many anti-Japanese activists, but Uchoru’s primary interest in life is long-distance running; he in fact competes on par with Son Gi-jeong, the winner of the marathon at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. But when the 1940 games planned for Tokyo are cancelled, Uchoru abandons his running career. He now cares only for his business and womanizing, having one affair after another and fathering ten children with four different women. For his part, Ugun joins a communist student group. At the tender age of 23, he is executed in South Korea amid the internal conflicts on the newly divided peninsula following the end of World War II.
Uchoru moves to Japan after the war and sets up a successful pachinko business. Then, in part as a tribute to his younger brother, who had also been a runner, he takes up running again after the age of 60, with his sights set on besting the record for his age group. Alongside the two brothers’ stories, Yū offers up a deeply felt portrayal of a nameless girl from the brothers’ hometown who was abducted at the age of 13 by the Japanese in power and sent to work as a “comfort woman” for their troops in China.
To better understand the heart and soul of the two athletic brothers with hopes of Olympic glory, Yū communicated with the spirits of her ancestors through a psychic medium, and ran a full 26-mile marathon herself in Seoul.
“I want to do something worth dying for,” says one of Uchoru’s classmates in deciding to cast his fate with the anti-Japanese resistance, and it is with this same sentiment that the two brothers lived out their turbulent lives. Yū brings to life a slice of people’s history not yet addressed in literature. Mixing Hangul with Japanese, and written with the cadences of prayer, folksong, and the chirring of insects, her prose takes on a musical quality that complements the story to superb effect. The work is both a memorial stone and a milepost in contemporary Japanese and Korean literature, and is without question one of Yū’s greatest achievements.