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Realism and Reverie: The Research of Professor K

  • onSeptember 24, 2017
  • Vol.37 Autumn 2017
  • byJean-Louis Poitevin
Les Recherches du professeur K (The Research of Professor K)
Tr. Kim Simon
2017
253pp.

Reading this collection of short stories by Kim Dong-in, which includes “Potatoes” and other famous works, it is impossible not to sense immediately that one is in the presence of a great writer. As well as vividly evoking 1930’s Pyongyang, the author brings to life the harsh reality—and pleasures—of life in that era. But there is an additional, more complex process at work here: the subtle mixing of realism and reverie, each story taking us on a journey through both Korean history and the various layers of the human psyche.

The realism of Kim Dong-in, the most notable pioneer of this style in twentieth-century Korean literature, lies in the fact that his short stories conceal nothing from us—whether this means the harshness of life and a certain level of poverty, the various pleasures that a city offers all levels of society, the political situation (Japanese occupation, for example), or the enchanting mountainous landscapes around Pyongyang or Seoul.

But what makes these stories truly realist is that each conveys a particular meditation on existence. Where poverty reigns, death lays down its law. Living means learning to fight a losing battle. Morality, then, is merely a set of arrangements that enable us to live another day. Obeying moral or social rules is no guarantee of happiness or unhappiness.

“The Law” is a prime example of this. The story relates the transgressions of a Catholic convert who is unable to make a distinction between the correctness of intentions and that of actions. “Where does it say that we may kill someone with only a year to live?”

Kim Dong-in’s work owes its vitality to the way each story relates events and actions committed by individuals who are motivated by a dream. For each of these characters, the dream has its origins in that infinite source of vital energy, where words rub against the facts of existence and become the drivers of decisions, journeys and actions that, just a few moments earlier, had been unthinkable to those who carry them out. This dream, whether it takes the form of an obsession, an irrepressible desire or an almost hallucinatory vision, is at once the force behind these words and the surface on which they are inscribed, as they single-handedly enable each individual to live another day.

This is the case with Professor K, an extreme obsessive who intends to save humanity by feeding it its own excrement. It is the case with Mr. Choe who, try as he might, is unable to escape the desire sparked by the sweet fragrance of his former pupil’s wife. And, even more tragically, it is the case with Kim Jangeui in “The Poplar,” who becomes a monster when the harmony between a phrase, a gesture, and a tree is disturbed, revealing and triggering an expression of his violent desire.

For Kim Dong-in, every situation we experience comes to us via this process of dreaming, which constitutes the beating heart of each of these stories and lends them their narrative force. His characters find themselves cast into the maelstrom of life by an eruption that sends them far beyond themselves, beyond the realm of the possible and into the world of dreams—a world that seems, simultaneously, more real than the real world and so ephemeral that it must inevitably burst, sending those caught up in it into an irreversible decline.

In the last story in the collection, “Tale of a Mad Painter,” a blind young woman appears beside a hideously ugly painter. Her sudden appearance amid the mountain scenery signals the merging of dreams with an elusive reality. It is only when the painter finally kills the woman that the evocative power of her gaze, itself a miracle of absolute purity, leaves its mark on the painting that was supposedly the sole embodiment of perfection and beauty, like some divine sign rising up beyond his control.

Were he with us today, Kim Dong-in might still call out and ask: “Excuse me—have you too left home in search of the rainbow?” 

by Jean-Louis Poitevin
Author, Séoul playstation mélancolique
Editor-in-Chief, TK-21 La Revue