The Song of Man: Jacob’s Ladder by Gong Ji-Young

  • onJanuary 4, 2017
  • Vol.34 Winter 2016
  • byAurélie Julia
L’échelle de Jacob (Jacob’s Ladder)
Tr. Lim Yeong-hee and Mélanie Basnel

The French edition of Gong Ji-Young’s latest book is certainly eye-catching. Not that the cover is provocative; on the contrary, your attention is drawn by the soothing image of candles glowing serenely against a dark background. Their flames dancing in response to an unseen breath, they suggest silent reverence in the face of divine mystery. Then you notice the novel’s title, Jacob’s Ladder, and the line from William Blake that opens the first chapter: “And we are put on earth a little space, that we may learn to bear the beams of love.”

Gong Ji-Young draws on the sources of the Bible and poetry to take her reader on a journey to the fringes of the religious and the human. She brings to life the words of a monk, now in his forties, recounting an episode from a decade prior. Brother Jean describes his moments of affirmation, doubt, and anger—and his internal revolt in the face of an unanswered “why.” His story speaks of the absurd and the sacred.

Aged twenty-eight, the young novice is preparing for his ordination. Yearning for the eternal, he wants to become a Benedictine monk and live an austere, abbey-bound existence. The rituals of prayer calm his energetic body while his spirit soars with a serene joy; not a shadow hangs over this existence. Jean is joined in this blissful state of balance by Michaël and Angelo. Together, the three monks walk the road of spirituality, sharing their views and uncertainties, never hesitating to crack open a good bottle of wine when the occasion arises. They might easily have led uneventful lives. But whatever our situation, the trials of existence are unavoidable, and even the walls of a monastic cell cannot protect us from pain and grief.

The time has come for Brother Jean’s certainties to be tested. One day, Abbot Samuel’s niece walks through the doors of the monastery: for her dissertation, So-Hui is researching the daily lives of monks, their dreams, renunciations, and sacrifices. This mesmerizingly beautiful young woman engages Brother Jean in conversation. At first, love is merely a topic for discussion, but soon it becomes a feeling, and then an awakening of the flesh. Jean’s senses are disturbed; the forbidden becomes an increasingly pressing desire. He must choose between God or woman.

While this soul-searching unfolds, Michaël undergoes an upheaval of another kind: his mind has been alerted to the harsh realities of the outside world. What is the Church doing in response to prostitution, poverty, and illness? He wants to help the oppressed and live in proximity to the destitute, but his black frock prevents him from taking action and rendering justice. One afternoon, he finds himself in the middle of a trade union protest and is arrested by the police. This is the trigger. Neither orders nor reprisals can stand in the way of destiny: Michaël finds St. Benedict’s rules stifling, and seeks to make himself useful through action and movement. A reader of Charles de Foucauld, he intends to apply the words of James: “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? […] A person is justified by works and not by faith alone. For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.” Circumstances will render Michaël’s destiny incomprehensible to human understanding.

Another character enters the narrative—that of history itself. Gong Ji-Young delves into the darkest chapters of Korean memory. She excels at rendering the facts, describing in a bare, unaffected style the ordeal of a group of monks sent to a camp in May 1949, through the testimony of a survivor in his old age. North Korean soldiers accuse the members of the religious community of anti-government activities. Brother Thomas soberly evokes the misery and horror of their situation, but also speaks of the unquenchable flame that no beating can extinguish: the love of God. His belief enables him to survive. In turn, Brother Jean’s grandmother reveals her own memories: in December 1950, with the war raging between North and South, she boarded an American ship together with thousands of others in extremis, escaping a tragic fate. Here again, Gong Ji-Young succeeds in conveying the apocalyptic atmosphere; her tone rings sincere and true.

What symbolic meaning are we to ascribe to “Jacob’s Ladder”? How are we to climb ever upwards when we are constantly pulled down, turned away from the light, by hardship? From the darkness of the concentration camp, a Benedictine monk answers: “Love means a willing acceptance of both suffering and the sublime, in order to transform them into something sacred.” 



by Aurélie Julia
Editorial Coordinator, Revue des Deux Mondes

Author's Profile

Gong Ji-Young has received the Amnesty International Special Media Award, Catholic Literature Award, and the Yi Sang Literary Award. Her best-known works include Our Happy Time, The Crucible, and My Sister, Bongsoon. Her books in translation include Our Happy Time (Atria Books/Marble Arch Press, 2014), Nos Jours Heureux (Philippe Picquier, 2014), L'échelle de Jacob (Philippe Picquier, 2016), and Ma très chère grande soeur (Philippe Picquier, 2018).