This tiny novella from a well-known South Korean writer serves as a simple allegory about totalitarianism, and how the intelligentsia who oppose it are first broken and then co-opted by it. Originally published in Korea in 1987, seven years after the massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Kwangju-an episode not nearly as well known in the West as Tinnanmen Square-it was made into a film in 1992. The story is narrated by a middle-aged man, recounting his experience as a 12-year-old boy forced to leave his prestigious elementary school in Seoul and move with his family to a provincial town. He expects to be a big fish in the small pond at his new school, but the local kids could care less about his academic achievements in the big city. They are all under the sway of the class monitor and bully, who has also made himself indispensable to the class teacher.
The newcomer is aghast at the schoolyard cult of personality created by the monitor and refuses to go along with it, resulting in his ostracization. The class monitor doesn't merely intimidate the others with physical force, rather he relies on more subtle approaches, getting subordinates to take action for him, and cultivating a climate of fear. Of course, when the narrator attempts to report the misdeeds of the monitor to the teacher, there is no hard proof, and none of the other children will support his claims. Eventually the narrator finds the psychological isolation too difficult and decides to go along with status quo. This proves to be a very easy and rewarding path as he is made a crony of the monitor, and he finds life under the monitor's rule to be less distasteful than he had expected. Of course, at the end, a new teacher upsets the applecart and like the arrival of the adults in Lord of the Flies, restores order to the world of the children while chastising them for letting themselves fall into such an arrangement. Here, the narrator is alone in refusing to denounce the monitor, as the class is transformed back into the messy democracy the narrator was used to in Seoul.
For a book that only takes an hour to read, it presents a fairly powerful package. The structure of the Korean school system will be of interest to Western readers as Mungol makes the most of the device of using children to illustrate the flaws of the adult world. The story, in its shortness and simplicity, could serve as a valuable aid for educators seeking to teach children about dissent. The one flaw is the rather too pat ending, where we see the class monitor as an adult being dragged away by police for criminal activity. In real life, the dictators either manage to hold on to power or come to decidedly messier ends.