Tales Pulled from the Past: Namiseom by Jeon Sang-guk

  • onOctober 23, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • byKang Yu-jung

Fiction writers find their inspiration from various sources. In the case of Jeon Sang-guk, his fiction is inspired by stories that make no sense at all, stories that may not be that uncommon but defy any logical explanation. His stories in Namiseom border upon the surreal. Eons of time pass in an endless loop for one character, another falls in love with a woman who resembles a water nymph.

Mysterious as these stories are on the surface, however, their meaning is quite different at the core. This is because all the supernatural events in Namiseom are linked to historical fact. The incredible stories of neighbors killing each other, the irrevocable damage they have wrought, are in fact the stories of individuals lumped together under the name of history.

The title story “Namiseom” illustrates this perfectly. Namiseom is now a tourist attraction known for being the location of a popular television drama, but nobody can agree on how it came by its name. Folklore holds that the island is named after General Nami, but Jeon Sang-guk believes it has to do with a woman named Nami. No page of the island’s history is left unturned in his search for stories that go back to Nami. Under the watchful gaze of the author, Namiseom, now merely a playground for tourists, is revealed to be an island haunted by a nymph that symbolizes all of its past tragedies. The island is the same place, but the stories were forgotten as the nature of the place changed. Accordingly the author calls it “the black box where memories come to die.” Only the eyes of an author such as Jeon Sang-guk could have decoded its secrets. In a world where everything must be decoded, living and growing old is like navigating a maze. Nothing about life is ever easy to answer, no matter how long it lasts.