Contacting the Beautiful, Dark Truth: Putain de pupitres! by Park Bum Shin

  • onJuly 16, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byJulie Fagot
Putain de pupitres!
Tr. K.O. Kwang-dan and Eric Bidet

The Park Bum Shin novel A Filthy Desk is a tale set in the wretched sixty to seventy-year period of an impoverished Korea, before and during Park Chung-hee’s Yushin government. With special consideration given to the perspective of the populist elements, the realistic background and its descriptions can seem especially violent and brutal, as it takes place under military dictatorship. The country suddenly moved from a traditional and poor society to a modern and industrialized nation, and the young protagonist (also named Yushin) illustrates perfectly the atmosphere of disorientation that followed the destruction of the older society during the reconstruction period.

The main character is an adult narrating his youth, and so the point of view alternates from adolescence to adulthood. The two “faces” of the narrator/protagonist portray different periods and also different narrative styles, mixing past and present, remembrance and contemplation. The young man is obviously marginalized, lost, and a bit rebellious. He is also strongly attracted by tormented writers (Genet, Baudelaire) who tend to see in the suffering, self-destruction, and death that surrounds them a better way to grasp and control the “humiliating” world they live in. It is a humiliating world not only because of the dress codes, the imposed curfew, the ruined sceneries, the hunger, and the prostitution that represents his everyday milieu, but also because of the many crazy things happening in the world at the time, such as the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War, McCarthyism, and so on.

The novel’s title refers to the education system he doesn’t want to accept , symbolizing what he hates and fears the most: predestination (the youth have to submit their lives to study in order to improve their country), and the ideological dreams and illusions taught to the youngest child in order to build a better future.

But this crazy place has changed over the years, and so does the protagonist. The 50-year-old Yushin feels surprised when he realizes how much he loves his country, feeling guilty towards his younger self, as though he is betraying him. The mature man who finally ended up teaching at a university, and peddling the “dream” he had despised years ago, comes to understand that Korea has changed to the point that the young generation is very far from realizing the realities that their parents and grandparents had to face, and that he is presently witnessing a profound generation gap.

As the world undergoes perpetual change, Yushin shows us how to keep questioning our environment, and most importantly, ourselves. He reminds us that bad parts of ourselves have a reason to be—the alter ego that he tried to kill and forget so many times becomes a source of nostalgia, inspiration, and love. He misses his past spontaneity and non-conformist attitude. Above all, he pursues again the capacity to establish direct contact with the “truth,” the dark and beautiful essence of things, which mature and wise reasoning had separated him from. This connection between good and evil, life and death, beauty and monstrosity that the older narrator (and Park Bum Shin) successfully underlines through moving, authentic, and beautiful prose, is finally what makes this story far from being what it looks like at first glance: a deeply pessimistic novel. 


by Julie Fagot
Editor, Keulmadang