Editor’s Note: The following review of The Polyglot: Union of Korea and Japan is copied from its Reader Column, amazon.com, by permission. The reviewer is Dr. Paul Sharar, 87, formerly on the NYU faculty and YMCA national director.
As a psychologist and YMCA director with broad experience with international groups I am delighted with Ty Pak’s novel, The Polyglot, for its combination of pertinent themes relevant to our world today, its salient and imaginative story line, its clearly drawn characters placed in a revealing history of an era he knows well and we all need to know better, and its focus on the many ways we communicate with one another with language-attitudes-tones-inflections-double meanings-misunderstandings all in a split second.
Dipping to the depths of depravity with clinical detachment and realism, the work soars to the heights of nobility, painted on a wide canvas, the whole globe, with characters ranging from the top rulers to the masses, a seemingly random sampling of them revealing a world of wonder, pathos, triumph, grandeur, especially as the ranks interact, showing how our lives are determined largely by luck and chance, the uncertainty binding us all and teaching us humility, understanding, forgiveness, love.
Early on there is a shocking and heart-breaking scene where Ina, 27, a brilliant surgeon, renounces maternity of her 2-year-old boy Peter as well as wifehood to her poet laureate husband, after coming all the way to Vladivostok from Japan occupied Korea to join him, only to find he has a second pregnant wife so committed to keeping him that she threatens with a pistol to Ina’s head to kill her and her son unless Ina renounces her marriage and gives her son to the second wife to raise with her soon to be born child, and never to make contact again.
This concession by Ina regarding Peter’s birth holds the key to the development of the story that takes place between 1919 and 1960 when Korea is forced to wake up to the modern age. The Stalin forced transport of Siberian Koreans to central Asia during which Peter is able to save many from death, China and Russia’s drive to make Korea communist, the US efforts to keep WW II outcomes in place, Japan’s economic revitalization all add to the evolving complexity of the story as Peter with an amazing gift for languages, speaking 16 with native fluency due to his forced trials, is pushed into many different leadership roles in these nations before, during and after the Korean War.
Then Peter’s identity is shattered, his old Soviet birth certificate turns out to be a fraud. Peter’s poet father assumed to have died in a Soviet gulag has been in the US, teaching literature at an American university, and is comatose with renal failure after contacting Peter. The kidney transplant campaign to save him leads to the discovery of Peter’s real parentage. His mother is Ina, as we have all known though hidden from him, but the DNA test for the kidney transplant shows his biological father is Japanese, not the patriotic Korean poet.
Hence the propriety of the eye-catching subtitle, Union of Korea and Japan, to this edition of The Polyglot. At first glance, given the history of the two countries, the idea seems an improbable fantasy. Not so with Peter, whose biology with Korean and Japanese parentage is an embodiment of this union. Nominated US Ambassador to South Korea but running into opposition from both Korea and Japan, who see him as 50% not like them, Peter calls on them to see him as 50% like them and to federate, especially in view of their common origins 10 millennia ago judging from the affinity of their two languages, as well as their close DNA. Nor is the federation proposed a ceremonial fellowship like the British Commonwealth but a functional polity like the USA.
Ty Pak gets us to think beyond regional geopolitical expedients and look once again at the possibilities for our global community to bring nations, languages, and cultures together. If Koreans and Japanese with their deep historical resentments will try, so might the rest of the world.