He is a writer who strikes us as a tough warrior rather than as a frail scholar. He insists on writing longhand using only pencils, and shuns automobiles in favor of tooling around on a bike. But most of all, he is the writer of an entirely new kind of historical novels in Korea. Park Hae-hyun, a reporter for the Chosun Ilbo, met with novelist Kim Hoon for this interview.
Kim Hoon writes in longhand, using pencils. He worked as a journalist for over 20 years before he started publishing novels, but strangely enough, he has never touched the keyboard of a typewriter or a computer. In this digital day and age, he insists on writing the analog way. Kim has always said, “When I write with pencils, I feel that my body is propelling the writing forward. I am incapable of writing a single line without this feeling.” To him, a pencil is not merely a tool for writing, but the embodiment of the writer himself. Kim Hoon uses his entire body to show the moment in which the body and the words of the writer become one to reveal that a writer’s style is, literally, none other than the writer himself.
Kim Hoon calls himself a bicycle racer. He does not have a driver’s license. He journeyed to the southern part of the Korean peninsula riding his bike, which he named Pungryun, meaning “wheels of the wind,” and wrote a series of travel essays. He is a writer who rejects computers and writes with a pencil, a writer who shuns automobiles and troubles himself by stepping on the pedals of his bicycle. People now consider him an evangelist promoting bike riding as part of the green lifestyle that is being emphasized in Korea today.
Kim Hoon, however, brushes this off, saying, “Pencils and bicycles are not exactly my source of pride or my idiosyncrasies.” He goes on to confess, “It’s not that I reject machinery out of free will; it’s simply that machines tend to break down at my touch. In other words, I’m disabled, a handicapped person, who has fallen behind the progress of the machine-oriented civilization.” But Kim has succeeded in turning his weaknesses into strengths. There has always been a tendency in Korean society to equate writers with frail and bookish, scholars. Kim, with his pencils and bikes, however, has come to be recognized as a writer who writes with his body, a writer who strikes us as a tough warrior rather than as an effeminate scholar. It is no coincidence that his most widely read work is Song of the Sword, his novel about Admiral Yi Sun-sin, who is considered as almost sacred in Korean history.
Song of the Sword not only sold over a million copies in Korea but also garnered its author the prestigious Dongin Literary Award, a rare case of a single book accomplishing both critical and commercial success. Song of the Sword is a historical novel set against the backdrop of 16th century warfare between Korea and Japan. It has been translated into several languages in many different countries, including France where it was published as part of Gallimard’s Du Monde Entier series.
The first-person narrator of Song of the Sword is Admiral Yi himself, who, with a small fleet, defended the kingdom of Joseon against the invading Japanese navy. Yi Sun-sin is revered as a national hero among the Korean people, and countless novels and films have been made about him. His heroic tale may have become too clichéd even for Koreans. What, then, is the reason behind the success of Kim Hoon’s novel in 21st century Korea?
First, in writing Song of the Sword, Kim Hoon took the form of the historical novel, but adopted a style and construction completely different from those of other Korean historical novels that had come before it. Kim categorized the historical novels of preceding generations into two types – romantic historical novels set in the royal court, and populist historical novels that center around common people – and aimed at overcoming both. He rejected both the romantic historical novel that fostered escapism in readers through the romance of historical heroes, and the populist historical novels that shed light on the life of the common people through the perspective of 20th century left-wing ideology. Instead of letting himself, the author, tell the story about people from the past, Kim chose the first-person narrative through which a historical figure reveals his interior feelings and thoughts.