- Tu m’aimes donc, Sonyong? (So You Love Me, Sonyong?)
Tr. Choi Mikyung and Jean-Noël Juttet 2017207pp.
The American writer Ambrose Bierce once jokingly referred to love as “a temporary insanity curable by marriage.” That’s a view that Gwangsu, the central character of Kim Yeonsu’s novel, would be unlikely to share. On the contrary—for him, it is precisely the day of his marriage that it all starts to go awry, and the symptoms of the disease appear.
Until now, this young man has been happily in love with the beautiful Sonyong, whom he met thirteen years ago at the time of his university entrance examination. But now, on the cusp of marital bliss, a wound opens up. It doesn’t seem too serious, but as his bride tosses the bouquet in the direction of the bridesmaid, Gwangsu can’t shake the feeling that something about this marriage is not quite right. Not to mention that one of the orchids in the bouquet has a broken stem. Just a minor detail, of course—nothing more significant than “a bleeding gum when brushing your teeth”—but it sends a shiver down Gwangsu’s spine. “Humans have a highly developed intuition when it comes to foreseeing danger,” notes the author. Gwangsu immediately sees an omen in the drooping flower.
Kim Yeonsu does not use this foundational scene, which plants the seeds of doubt and sets the novel in motion, as the starting point for an exploration of premonitions or instincts. Rather, he invites us to share his thoughts on modern love. The reader soon learns that there is a troublesome third party closing in on this married couple: Jinu is a second-rate but self-satisfied novelist, an inveterate womanizer who was formerly in love with Sonyong. When Gwangsu compares two photos from the wedding in which Sonyong and Jinu stand close together, he feels his concern growing. Were Jinu and Sonyong once lovers? What if they still are?
Against a backdrop of songs and karaoke, Kim skilfully interweaves narrative passages with meditations on the origins of the feelings of love, suspicion, jealousy, the pain of memory, or the inevitable “sweeping arc” of any love affair—from its beginnings and early blossoming to its apogee and ending. More originally, he forces us to examine the connection between romantic love and monogamy. “What is romantic love,” Jinu asks, if not a fantasy whereby we “delude ourselves that we love of our own free will,” that we are “unfettered by any constraints,” whether social, cultural, or economic? Biology does not play a major role in the writing of Kim Yeonsu, but Jinu evokes it all the same: “We are wild animals by nature,” he claims, “designed neither for monogamy nor for eternal love.” Kim stops short of implying that it would be more natural and less hypocritical for the human animal to evolve in an openly polygamous environment. But over the course of the novel, he does impart a series of observations: