On Love and Lurking

  • onDecember 18, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byNathaniel Davis
The Private Lives of Plants
Tr. Inrae You Vinciguerra and Louis Vinciguerra

Lee Seung-U’s novels have been praised for the way they probe the inner emotional and ethical mechanics of the human subject—often through the lens of theology and spiritual experience. The family drama that unfolds in The Private Lives of Plants is no different, but if one approaches it expecting a staid, predictable tale based on cookie-cutter Christian morality, well, one would be mistaken.

Born in 1959, Lee studied theology and published his first novel, Portrait of Erysichthon, in 1981. He has won most of the prominent Korean literary awards, and J.M.G. Le Cléio once cited Lee as the Korean writer most likely to win the Nobel Literature Prize. The Private Lives of Plants was first published in 2000, and has been translated into French and Spanish. This is Lee’s first book to be published as part of Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature series.

The novel’s disturbing strangeness is made clear from the outset. It begins jarringly, with the protagonist, Ki-hyeon, discovering his mother fulfilling a rather disturbing domestic duty: carrying his older brother, who has lost both legs in an accident, on her back to the brothels in the Lotus Flower Market so that he may relieve the sexual mania that builds within him as a result of his handicap. Ki-hyeon’s initial revulsion and shame give way to a sense of responsibility as he realizes that it will now be his duty to care for his brother’s sorry state.

From this unsettling beginning, the novel turns yet stranger, as Ki-hyeon is hired to spy on his own mother while continuing to procure women for his brother. His father, meanwhile, retreats ever deeper into his single-minded obsession with plants and plant life, and Ki-hyeon delves into the backstory of his love-hate relationship with his brother, which involves a jealous fight over a girl named Soon-mee, a stolen camera and some incriminating photos, as well as his own inferiority complex due to his mother’s clear preference for her older son.

This tense familial atmosphere of secrecy, guilt, remorse, and envy is only the symptom of the volatile effects of love in its libidinal extremes. From his brother’s violent sexual fits—“A man’s sex drive is an urge towards physiological discharge,” a psychologist explains to his mother, “without one it overflows”—to his own obsession with Soon-mee, which leads convolutedly—by way of the stolen camera—to his brother’s handicap.

The camera comes to stand for Ki-hyeon’s voyeuristic position in life, his constant lurking on the periphery of his familial circle of relations—his observation and spying, as well as his imagination and fantasizing. He envies the perceived intimacy of others that he seems wholly incapable of: “Could my brother control Soon-mee’s dreams? Could he actually enter her dreams while I just roamed around outside them?” His decision to begin taking responsibility for his brother must also entail overcoming his own self-imposed observational barrier, becoming integrated and involved in real emotional attachments with others.

The tension between the two brothers—one whom tragedy has cut short before his time, the other suffering from both envy and the responsibility that falls onto him—connects the novel to the rich history of sibling rivalry in literature and film, from Cain and Abel and Edmund and Edgar to, more recently, Hirokazu Koreeda’s Still Walking. The tension between North and South Korea may also be represented here, as well as the attendant paranoia and fear that results in social and political oppression on both sides of the border (the amputee brother is himself a victim of his country’s overzealous control of the citizenry).

Ultimately, the novel is about the many faces of love and desire: from ecstatic adoration to tormented anguish, and everything in between. The novel ends with the protagonist rethinking his family’s complicated web of attachments:

“I loved Soon-mee the way that my father loved my mother. But she loved my brother, just as my mother loved another man. But just as it can’t be said that Mother doesn’t love Father, it also can’t be said that Soon-mee doesn’t love me.”

While Ki-hyeon attempts to reconcile himself with love’s defects in his attempt to achieve emotional maturity, his brother yearns to exit the cycle of unrequited desire, joining the serene ranks of the plant world—“He said he wanted to become a tree,” says his puzzled botanist father—following Daphne, Pitys, Phyllis, and Io, who, according to myth, are transformed into trees and flowers in order to escape their states of amorous torment. 


 by Nathaniel Davis
Assistant Editor, Dalkey Archive Press

Author's Profile

Lee Seung-U, a former student of theology, made his literary debut in 1981 with the novella A Portrait of Erysichthon. Throughout his career, Lee has maintained an interest in theological and metaphysical issues, which is reflected in his writing style that meticulously depicts the inner workings of the human soul. His works deal with questions about morals arising in quotidian life as well as more universal issues concerning God, salvation, and guilt. In particular, Lee’s novels since 2000 have inquired into the meaning of reality and the everyday, thereby bringing together the sacred and the secular, and the mind and the body. Published translations of his books include The Reverse Side of Life (Peter Owen, 2005), La vie rêvée des plantes (Gallimard, 2009), Ici comme ailleurs (Gallimard, 2013), and The Private Life of Plants (Dalkey Archive, 2015).