Love, Sin, and Transcendence: Pieśń ziemi by Lee Seung-U
- onSeptember 2, 2019
- Vol.45 Autumn 2019
- bySean Gasper Bye
- Pieśń ziemi (Song of the Earth)
Tr. Katarzyna Różańska 2019260pp.
I have never read a contemporary novelist who engages with Christianity so seriously as Lee Seung-U. One of South Korea’s leading novelists and a theology graduate, his work is known for dealing with redemption and the conflict between everyday life and the spirit. His novel Pieśń ziemi (“song of the earth” in English) is a sophisticated study of the moral fallout from a rape and a vengeful murder. Lee’s message is that in a world of arbitrary violence and unforeseen consequences, we must seek refuge in the eternal Word of God. He warns us that, powerful as this refuge is, nothing can protect us from the world’s cruelty.
The book begins with the mystery of the abandoned mountain monastery of Cheonsan. The walls of Cheonsan’s underground catacombs are covered in Biblical verses written with elaborate calligraphy—in fact, the entire Old and New Testaments. It seems the monastery was occupied until the 1970s—but what happened to the monks, and who made these extraordinary inscriptions?
The answer begins decades before in the town at the foot of the mountain, when a certain Lieutenant Park rapes a young woman named Yun-hee. Her cousin Hu murders Park in revenge, then flees to the mountaintop monastery to seek refuge among the monks. Hu joins their egalitarian community and learns to pray by copying out Scripture, hour after hour, by hand.
Years later, the monastery becomes a refuge for another troubled man, Han Jeong-Hyo. Han has been a right-hand man to South Korea’s military dictator. But when his pious and long-suffering wife dies of cancer, he abandons politics and devotes himself to God. Cruelly jailed as a threat to the regime, he is finally exiled to Cheonsan—but not before the government expels half the monks living there and puts the monastery under lockdown.
Among the purged is Hu, who sets off on an endless search to find his beloved cousin Yun-hee. He finds himself in Seoul, working at a beauty salon and sleeping with the wife of the chief of the secret police, betting she can help him locate his cousin. Meanwhile, the monastery’s torment is not over—when a new dictator comes to power, the monastery is cruelly wiped out. But Han, tipped off, escapes with his life. Hu and Han both find themselves homeless and solitary, their only comfort the Scripture they memorized at Cheonsan. Without giving too much away, both have a role to play in the mystery of the underground inscriptions.
Pieśń ziemi is tightly structured, moving between a framing story in the present and multiple plotlines in the past. Each chapter focuses on a different character, with their stories interweaving in ways that they themselves are not always aware of. Stylistically, Lee’s story is grounded in the twentieth-century history of South Korea, but he leaves details vague and draws parallels to Biblical stories. This gives the book a mythic effect, reinforced by Lee’s use of declamatory diction and effects like repetition to heighten the abstraction. Katarzyna Różańska’s translation captures this nicely.
At the start of the book, the narrator describes the story as one of love and sin. Sin in the form of violence is certainly ever-present. Yet love is often weaponized, used as a justification for rape, abuse, and exploitation. Pure love seems to be chaste, like Han’s wife’s pious adoration and the monks’ love for one another. Lee focuses on the suffering human desire can cause—including for those caught in the crossfire, hurt by situations beyond their control.
Han and Hu’s flight is reminiscent of the Russian sect in Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, believing the devil can be kept at bay by constantly remaining in motion. Hu believes this endless pilgrimage allows him to live in the world but not of it, transcending the opposition between the flesh and the spirit. Yet their ultimate fate suggests the only true transcendence is in death. It is a somber message, but one grounded throughout in true spiritual insight.
Lee has produced a thoughtful, sophisticated, and moving piece of literature. Though his view is rooted in Christianity, the questions he addresses concern and torment us all. If Lee’s answers are more challenging than satisfying, it is only reflective of the depth of his insight, eschewing easy answers in favor of a truer reflection on life.
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).