- Yi Mun-yol
Although Yi Mun-yol’s Son of Man begins like a run-of-the-mill detective novel—a policeman under pressure, an unidentified body, bloodstained gloves found discarded in the woods near the crime scene, enigmatic clues, and so on—the narrative quickly takes a turn towards the strange. When the victim is identified as a wayward Christian monk, and a detective by the name of Nam discovers his unfinished manuscript of a novel that rewrites Biblical history, any crime novel clichés are set aside.
When Kojuk thought of his childhood, he could not help recalling the day he was thrown into the life that became his. How many decades ago was it? Anyway, he was about ten when he was led by his uncle to Sŏkdam’s old house.
. . . .
The teacher was only just forty when they first met, but he already looked old and worn out by poverty.
This novel portrays a nineteenth-century Korean poet’s life. Yi Mun-yol traces the course of his hero’s destiny, filled with pain and marked by numerous deviations, from early childhood, through the various stages of his poetic career, until he finally walks out into the night leaving his son gazing after him. […]
-Chong-wha Chung and Brother Anthony of Taizé
Yi Mun-yol resides at the Buak Academy in Icheon, Gyeonggi-do Province, where the surroundings offer mesmerizing scenery with the changing colors of the autumn foliage. The interview was conducted in the author’s study and can be summarized into three themes: Yi Mun-yol’s views on the role of the novel; discussion about The In-between Periphery, his epic novel which was published in the middle of this year; and his personal thoughts on the globalization of Korean literature.
Views On the Novel
Hae Yisoo: You made your debut as a writer in 1977 and have been writing for 37 years. Has there been a change in your view of what the role of the novel should be?
Yi Mun-yol: When I was a reader, a novel was like a haven where I could escape from reality. After I became a novelist, I began to think about what role my novels should serve. To elaborate, I thought about a writer’s sense of mission or redemption. In those days, I had vowed not to write about the present-day issues. For example, I wasn’t going to be obsessed with certain values and thought it better not to get involved in the political debate. But, as time passed, I couldn’t simply avoid the problems of reality. After experiencing so much, this is what I believe. In short, that too much is worse than too little. I don’t think it’s a good literary philosophy to dedicate one’s novels to some cause.
Hae: Your works, which have won literary and popular acclaim, have been published in textbooks, staged, and adapted for cinema. What do you think is the most important aspect of writing that hasn’t changed since you began writing?
Yi: In the past, I did have an idea but I’m not sure anymore. Although my works have not necessarily been failures nor have I written an insignificant number of books, nonetheless, as time passes, they have begun to lose their vitality and popular appeal and began to tilt toward one side. In terms of relevance and popularity, I need to demarcate my works into two periods, before and after 2000.
First of all, before 2000, what I considered most important about my writing was not to forget that I myself was a reader. As a youth enamored with literature, I always had high expectations of the novels I read. Thus, I tried to affirm my identity through them and also learn about history and culture while enjoying reading. During this period, I didn’t forget what I, as a reader, wanted from literature and strove to instill that in my works.
But from 2000 on, the direction of my purpose shifted to: “What is it that the readers need?” I came up with subject matter and themes that I thought the readers of today need and should read about. And yet, because I decided it unilaterally, and such an intention was in operation, there consequently began to be a distance between the readers and myself.
Hae: When would you say you were happier?
Yi: It’s an altogether different issue to feel regret over it or think I did the wrong thing. Even if I were to go back to that period, I might have made the same decision. However, I was happier in the former days, but because of that, it led to the latter period.
Hae: The literary market has become greatly reduced in size compared to the past. What do you think is necessary to bring back readers?
Yi: Whether or not that’s possible, I can’t even guess. At a lecture I gave recently, I was asked why I don’t engage in SNS. I replied that I’m not sure that I’d be good at that mode of communication, not to mention that I don’t think too highly of it. There are two characteristics of SNS. One, it is a form of instant reply, where a questioner is allowed the necessary time and effort to formulate an argument that one can agree with, whereas no such time and space are granted to the person asked to make an instant reply to counter-argue. Because there is not enough time permitted to verify the legitimacy of a question or enough space to provide a counter argument, it’s easy to be caught in the snare of the questioner’s predetermined rhetorical web.
Hae: Are you pointing out how SNS, purportedly a form of mutual communication, is more akin to a one-sided debate?
Yi: This method of communication is less about sharing opinions and more about someone imposing their prejudiced views on others. Questioners who can take advantage of this type of communication will usually only acknowledge those people who will give a speedy reply of “yes” or “no.” Furthermore, he will deem only those who quickly agree with him as someone they can talk to, whereas those who say “no” will be seen as people who are incapable of a dialogue.
It could be said that the number of victims from biased SNS communication has diminished compared to before, but in some ways it means both sides have become accustomed to a similar method of attack and defense. One should not overlook this aspect before SNS can be regarded as an advanced means of communication. Instead of a brief response from the respondent that is induced by the questioner, there should be a time of reflection for a questioner and sufficient time for counter-argument.
The novel could perhaps be an alternative solution to overcome this flawed trend, for it provides enough time to both the writer and the reader to ponder and contemplate. For people who are used to a quick reading and reaction, this salutary adjustment can occur, and there can be a recovery of sufficient time for self-reflection; and thus perhaps lost readers can be recalled to the land of the novel.
The In-between Periphery
Hae: The In-between Periphery is an epic novel that recounts a tumultuous period in Korean society starting from the 1950s to 1972, when the Yushin Revitalizing Reforms were set in motion. You began writing it starting in 1986 and the first volume was published in 1998, and, 16 years later, the 12-volume set came out this year; hence, it’s a closure to a 28-year time span. What motivated you to write this epic?
Yi: Through the story of a family, the novel depictsthe transformation of Korea, which is situated at the edge, so to speak, of two major imperialist powers of the 20th century, the US and the USSR. During this time, the Korean peninsula was divided into the North and the South and became an arena of propaganda for the two nations, western (the U.S.) and eastern (the USSR). While the two are mutually at odds and are reliant on each other, North and South Korea are subjected to a unique experience; it is under these circumstances that the story of the three siblings and their physical, mental, and social maturity takes place.
Hae: You have painted a massive mural with a comprehensive portrayal of Korean life against the backdrop of a political, economic, social, and cultural setting that is the outcome of the tumultuous period of the 1960s. What was the most difficult aspect of writing during the long period you worked on this epic?
Yi: It was most difficult to write the part having to do with Marxism. Fortunately, around the time I began working on this novel, the ban on socialist theory books was being slightly loosened and I was able to get hold of some pertinent books. But Das Kapital by Karl Marx was a banned book until the endof the 1980s. Therefore, I barely managed to get the requisite permission to go read it in the library of a government institute. The edition I read then was an edition that was printed in Seoul in 1946.
Hae: Do you have any regrets since the publication?
Yi: My original plan was to complete a set of 12 volumes and then to work on another set of 12. But instead of what I had originally planned, it looks like I’ll have to reduce the second set to eight volumes. I am going to write about the other side, which wasn’t so conspicuous, of the cultural and political transformation of the 1980s. Then, broadly speaking, The Age of Heroes published in 1984 will serve as the prologue, The In-between Periphery will be the main body, and what I am currently working on will be the epilogue.
On His Works in Translation
Hae: Thus far, 65 of your works have been published in 18 languages in over 20 countries. While you’ve been on the front line of the translation of Korean literature, how do you assess foreign readers’ experience of reading Korean literature?
Yi: I have received information about their response indirectly through translation, interpretation, or reviews in the media, but I have not had a chance to personally hear from a reader. It is fortunate that the younger generation of writers is actively engaged in communication in a domain I have not had experience in. Writers like Shin Kyung-sook, Lee Seung-U, and Kim Young-ha appear to be writers of a different type in regard to the subject matter or their communicative aspects. If it was my role to open a gate to the international literary market, then I believe these younger writers will do well in what needs to be done next.
Hae: You must have thought about the role of the novel for a long time; exactly what aspect of it do you think stands the test of time and transcends national boundaries in order to effectively move readers?
Yi: The story is a very crucial element in my novel. Some do not consider storytelling very important but I believe in the power of the story. There are many examples of narrative force in the novel and the power of characters, like in the tale of a man who knew the King’s secret and felt compelled to disclose that the King had donkey-like ears, if only to bamboo trees, otherwise he might have gone mad; or the desperation of Scheherazade from The Arabian Nights.
Hae: You have had diverse experience in the international literary scene; what have you gleaned from that experience and what is the task at hand for the globalization of Korean literature?
Yi: A writer must decide to whom he ultimately wants to tell his story. In other words, foreign readers can understand my stories only with footnotes and explanations. In this vein, Haruki Murakami has succeeded with his strategy. He tells stories that are familiar to all American, Japanese, and Korean readers. For some of his books, if you cover the author’s name, then it’s impossible to identify whether an American or a Japanese wrote it.
If you tell a universal tale by passing over the stories that are familiar to only Koreans, then it might be possible to reach out to international readers. Once I tried writing a novel for readers outside of Korea, without adding any footnotes, and it took five to six months to complete it. But the stories I wrote for English readers, for whom footnotes were not necessary, conversely, required footnotes for Koreans.
Hae: You have established the Buak Academy in Icheon City and Gwangsan Literary Center in your hometown of Seokbo. Could you tell us what these places are for?
Yi: Foreigners might be unfamiliar with these places and therefore curious about them. It could be misconstrued as an institute where writers are fostered, but it is actually a scholarly center where one can study and discipline oneself. The Buak Academy operates, at present, a residence program and is used as a writers’ space. The Gwangsan Literary Center is where I would like to pursue scholarship on the East Asian literary principles that have exerted a profound influence on modern Korean literature.
Hae: What are you working on now?
Yi: I am preparing what could be viewed as the epilogue to The In-between Periphery. It will cover the 1980s, a period that is important to Koreans in many ways. It will be possible to understand the present only when we analyze that era properly. The turbulence of today could have resulted from not construing this time period in an appropriate way. An approach to interpreting this period has become even more complex because the 1980s are referred to in confusing words, often on SNS, a relatively new mode of communication. I am working on trying to elucidate the cultural hegemony of that era.
Hae: Your novel, The Poet, has been translated into 11 languages to high acclaim. In addition to the evaluation of critics and the publishing industry, how is the book culturally significant to you?
Yi: I started writing this book in my mid-40s, reflecting on my life up to then. I was able to tell in one volume all the disparately expressed aspects of my life in different novels. My family was subject to much suffering for the longest time as a result of my father’s defection to North Korea. And because of a guilt-by-association system, we were restricted from being part of mainstream society. Consequently, the resulting fright led me to remain mute or compliant to the political circumstances of the early 1980s— that has been a big burden on me. At the same time, as I got older and acquired a political consciousness, I began to ask myself what was the best position for me to take about that time period. The Poet was a book in which I tried to resolve all these issues.
Hae Yisoo (b. 1973) debuted with the novella “The Kangaroo in the Desert” (2000) in the literary magazine Hyundae Munhak. He has published the short story collections, The Kangaroo in the Desert and Jellyfish. He is the recipient of the Sim Hoon Literary Award (2004) and the Han Moosuk Literary Award (2010).
When I came home from school that day, I began again to examine carefully this new order and environment. A certain mental paralysis, the result of being thrown suddenly into a very strange school environment, and a feeling of being threatened by the rigidity of this new order, which now suddenly was weighing down on me, filled my head with a kind of fog; everything was so fuzzy that I couldn’t think.