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FICTION

Modern Times: Endless Blue Sky by Lee Hyoseok

  • onDecember 10, 2018
  • byJeremy Tiang
Endless Blue Sky
Tr. Steven D. Capener
2018
342pp.

Endless Blue Sky takes place between Seoul, where most of the characters live, and Manchuria, where our protagonist Cheon Ilma is sent at the start of the novel to extend an invitation to the Harbin Symphony Orchestra. The novel is set when it was written, around 1940, and Ilma is, like author Lee Hyoseok at the time, in his mid-thirties. Lee, however, was an established writer whereas Ilma is only just starting to figure out his place in the artistic world.

Much of the action focuses on Ilma’s entanglements with women: Miryeo, the beauty he loved in his youth and whom he still holds a torch for; Nadia, a Russian cabaret dancer in Harbin; and Danyeong, a dissipated movie actress who is so infatuated with him she stalks him all the way to Manchuria and breaks into his hotel room. Although he says, “What use do I have for women?” twice within ten pages, it’s clear that they are fairly central to his existence.

We are told that Ilma’s securing of the orchestra is a coup, though it seems to take him very little effort to achieve this. More significantly, he has a windfall—winning a substantial sum of money with a lottery ticket and more at the races the next day—that emboldens him to propose to Nadia. She agrees to return to Seoul with him, where she becomes an object of fascination to his friends, mostly for the West she represents with her white skin and blonde hair.

This is a portrait of an intellectual class trying to figure out, in a time of flux, who they are and what the future holds. Frustrated with Japanese imperialism and a stifling society of Confucian norms, where the very clothes they wear are dictated by custom, they find themselves yearning for “modernity” (which, more often than not, means Western thought and culture). When Miryeo walks out on her philandering husband, she compares herself to the heroine of A Doll’s House: “I’m the Nora of humanity.” Her friend Hyeju mocks her for her devotion to the Western concept of “individualism”—when her husband sleeps around, isn’t he just “exercising his free will”?

Despite the relative affluence in which he and his friends live, Ilma refers to Korea as “one big slum.” Many of the characters exist in a state of cultural anxiety, alluding to “the pleasing vibe of Europe” and ostentatiously demonstrating their knowledge of Chopin and Beethoven. To do otherwise is to be, as Miryeo sneers at her husband, “just a barbarian that,s been cleaned up a bit.” More than once, they watch French films—whose plots are described in detail—and then spend several pages discussing the films’ meanings.

The novel uses its plot as a structure on which to hang big ideas, and when the characters are not busy being “modern” by having scandalous love affairs, they are mulling over unanswerable questions such as why some people are fortunate while others are not. Real life does intrude upon their contemplations—particularly when a minor character is kidnapped by a criminal gang in Manchuria—but for the most part, we are in the realm of the mind.

Although Lee generally does well in creating complex female characters with agency, his male gaze occasionally rears its head, notably when Danyeong gets out of a bath and marvels at her beautiful “well-baked body,” or when Miryeo spends an unlikely amount of time contemplating the gym of her music academy—which just accepts “beautiful” women—in which her female students will exercise “wearing only underwear.” There is also a rather distressing passage in which Danyeong’s unrequited passion for Ilma leads her to drug and rape him, with essentially no consequences.

Steven D. Capener,s translation uses period-appropriate vocabulary to root us in the 1940s, though his frequent footnotes are sometimes informative and sometimes distracting. Many of the characters are prone to melodramatic pronouncements such as “What did you do to me last night, you fiend?”—which Capener renders with sufficient gravity so that they never tip over into camp.

Endless Blue Sky is a compelling portrait of a certain class of Koreans at a particular historical juncture, clearly drawing a great deal from Lee’s own life. At one point, Danyeong complains, “That’s why I don’t like novelists. Everything they see and experience they want to write a story about.” There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, and Lee has produced a novel that is both an engaging narrative and a contemplative reflection of his times.

 

by Jeremy Tiang
Author, State of Emergency (2017)
Winner, 2018 Singapore Literature Prize for English Fiction