Reenacting a Revolutionary: The Death of Robespierre by Seo Joon-hwan

  • onOctober 27, 2014
  • Vol.21 Autumn 2013
  • byBok Dohoon
The Death of Robespierre

Young writer Seo Joon-hwan combines the conventions of science fiction and the detective story in a style reminiscent of the French nouveau roman or Samuel Beckett’s experimental novels, yet unmistakably makes the work his own.

The Death of Robespierre is a strange novel. In form it resembles a three-act puppet show, in which Guignol and other marionettes play historical figures. It is also a novel, however, in which the audience of the puppet show is present in the novel as a protagonist (Napoleon), and the protagonist has his own narrative inside and outside the show. Thematically this is also an interesting work. The one question I kept asking myself while reading this novel was, why Robespierre, and why now?

To Koreans that know of Maximilian Robespierre, he is usually the “bloodthirsty dictator” who destroyed the spirit of the French Revolution, or at best as “a wise citizen-comrade and staunch Roman senator.” The author does not stop there, however, and presents us with a painstakingly researched and vividly reenacted version of the final three days of the revolutionary’s life before the Thermidorian Reaction of 1794. This sets the stage for some truly magnificent and heated debates on revolution and dictatorship, democracy and rebellion, freedom and equality, virtue and terror, and loyalty and betrayal.

The Death of Robespierre provides few metaphors that could be applied to Korean society. Why Robespierre, then? The fictional Napoleon says, “This is clearly to watch history being made.” Korea today is torn between the dictatorship of materialism and a revolutionary democracy. Surely this is reason enough for a fictional attempt at resurrecting Robespierre. 

Author's Profile

Seo Joon-hwan made his literary debut in the quarterly Literature and Society in 2001 with his short story “Aquarium.” He is the author of the short story collection You Are the Memories of the Moon and the novels The Goldberg Variations and The Death of Robespierre.