Fans of Kim Takhwan can be classified into two groups. Readers who like the clever detective work of The Fellowship of the White Tower, about a band of intellectuals from the latter half of the Joseon dynasty, will find themselves becoming ardent Fellowship fans. The second group will be enthralled by Revolution, the first book in Kim’s Annals of the Joseon Dynasty series. Those who appreciate strong writing and enjoy leisurely savoring a character’s life will identify with the revolutionaries in Hyecho and I, Hwang Jini as well. Kim has also written opuses like The Immortal Yi Sun-sin and sci-fi novels like The Blind Scientist, which he wrote in collaboration with an engineer. With the publication of his latest work, The Magician from Joseon, yet another group of Kim Takhwan fans is set to emerge—those who could be classified as a sunny and joyful bunch, since this novel has the most lovable characters among all of Kim’s works to date.
As for me, I count myself part of the revolutionary group. And yet, my favorite Kim Takhwan novel is Russian Coffee, the lightest among his weighty tomes. A novel that, while following the course of a river, doesn’t get caught up in its currents but rather soars lightly, like a butterfly. The charm of Kim’s fiction, for me, rests here.
The label “historical fiction writer” follows Kim everywhere. Calling him a writer who scoops up stories along the road would be more accurate. He looks at the whole of history, paying close attention to people who set off on distant journeys, and contemplates for a long time the meanings stamped in their steps. He is particularly observant of people on the road, especially if they’re traveling to distant shores. A seeker of truth wandering in the sand forests of the Silk Road, a court lady who sets off on a journey of love to a land far away from home—from the waves of the sea to the plains of the meadow, he walks in the footsteps of his characters, outliers yet strong human beings. Kim Takhwan is a flâeur who walks on a path that is fantastical despite its deceptively conventional appearance. It’s a path that unfolds endlessly because it is yet complete, where stories continuously rush in no matter how long you keep walking.
I like to stroll down and pause on the deep trail of his stories.
Once long ago, I witnessed Kim’s penchant for writing in the wee hours of the morning on his Twitter feed. To me, the act of writing at first light was new and fascinating. Kim puts his whole heart into writing, and is passionate about reading as well. These days, he emphasizes reading all the more. For the past several years, he’s been hosting a book show on the radio and has even started a club called “School for All” whose members’ sole purpose is to read, talk, and discuss. Reading and writing are undoubtedly a writer’s job, but Kim is living proof that books can be a source of healing and recovery for those of us who can’t do without them.
Kim made quite a lengthy status update on Facebook the other day. At the end he wrote, “I’ll have to start writing again.” My ears pricked up at those words. So he’s found something interesting! And now, he’ll have to engage in a weary fight. I learnt by studying him that you finish a story by grappling with the characters you create and also with yourself, which is why I call him a fighter and a writer who tries to surpass himself.
by Choi Yesun