A Musician Without a Country: Rhapsody in Berlin by Ku Hyoseo

  • onOctober 20, 2014
  • Vol.8 Summer 2010
  • byKim Hyoung-joong
Rhapsody in Berlin

On the surface, Ku Hyoseo’s Rhapsody in Berlin assumes the form of a mystery. Kim Sang-ho, also known as Yamagawa Kentaro and as Thomas Kim, is a Korean musician living in Berlin who leaves behind a diary upon his death. Sixty-seven at the time of his death, his diary mentions his Japanese girlfriend of 40 years ago, Hanako. Leaving the cryptic description that she is “the place I dreamed of all my life,” Kim Sang-ho commits suicide. Hanako, hearing this news, traces the 40 years of his life since they were apart as she searches for and finds the true reason behind his death. From this point of view, this novel is a classic mystery.

At the same time it is also a love story of two lovers separated for 40 years and reunited through death. It is not, however, a sentimental or insipid story at all. Rhapsody in Berlin is a sweeping romance, all the more so because the barriers that separate Kim Sang-ho and Hanako for 40 years are nationalism and ideology. In a country once colonized by the Japanese and divided by armistice, where ethnic homogeneity is a dominant national ideology, the defeat of the lovers’ romance by nationalism and ideology raises complex questions. A parallel love story within the story is that of Johann Hintermaier, a late 18th century German composer that Kim Sang-ho is obsessed with, and Lea, his teacher Eiblinger’s sister. The love of Hanako’s father for his daughter and the love of Eiblinger for his sister also overlap and contribute to the theme of unrequited love.

The mixture of mystery and romance makes for an irresistible story. The crux of Rhapsody in Berlin, however, lies elsewhere. Beyond the intrigue and fancy, the core of the story comes down to diaspora. The Japanese Yamagawa Kentaro, the Korean Kim Sang-ho, and the German Thomas Kim are one person. The protagonist is Korean, Japanese, and German at the same time. In other words, he is a non-national, a man on the border, a “homo sacer,” as Agamben says (this is also the title of two chapters of the novel). His nationality loses him the love of his life; his ideology robs him of human dignity and 17 years of his youth. Finally, living as a musician in strange lands, he takes his own life. As art and artists dictate, he longed for a life unconstrained by borders, but his country, his people, and his ideology called to him and ultimately drove him to ruin and death. His lifelong dedication to music was an expression of his longing to transcend all borders. It was this longing that caused him to fixate on the 18th century German composer Johann Hintermaier, a man whose life closely resembled his own and who also became a Korean national like himself.

In the end, the overlapping stories of Thomas Kim, expatriate musician, and Johann Hintermaier, the 18th century German (later Korean) composer whom he searches for all his life, transform Rhapsody in Berlin into an epic künstlerroman. The author’s thorough research on the musical circles of 18th century Germany and organs and other instruments makes this novel a künstlerroman truly exceptional in the history of Korean literature.

The most touching passage of this künstlerroman, however, is towards the end of the novel when Hanako finds the protagonist’s tombstone and reads the disarmingly simple inscription on it. The inscription reads, “5P 3/10.” As readers interested in color might have guessed, the cryptic inscription is a color code. The code is for violet, the color of the asters that bloomed along the country roads that Hanako and Kentaro traveled on when they were young at the most beautiful and peaceful time of their lives. But is that all? Those aware that color can become the symbol of an ideology or establishment, and, by association, the object of strict taboos or fawning adulation, will guess that there is more. Violet is the shade that combines red and blue. It is therefore the color of reconciliation in a country where the “red” North and “blue” South killed one another, a color transcending the dichotomy of ideology. The place that Kentaro dreamed of all his life, therefore, is not only his beloved Hanako. He dreamt of a violet music, and a violet nation (that was not a nation). He dreamt of a world where everyone belongs to the border, not North or South nor left or right, where diaspora has no place, no hold whatsoever over the world, music, and love. 

Author's Profile

Ku Hyoseo debuted in 1987 with “Joints,” which won a prize at the JoongAng Ilbo’s annual contest. Ku is a prolific writer with more than thirty books over a career spanning thirty years. His best known works include Where the Clock Hung, Nagasaki Papa, Secret Door, How to Cross a Swamp, Rhapsody in Berlin, and A House with a Beautiful Sunset View and Other Stories. He has received the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award, Hwang Sun- won Literary Award, HMS (Hahn Moo-Sook) Literary Prize, and Daesan Literary Award. His books in translation include Rhapsody in Berlin (Yilin Press, 2013) in Chinese and Nagasaki Papa (CUON, 2012) in Japanese.