The Road to Our Paradise: Your Paradise by Yi Chong-Jun
- onNovember 2, 2014
- Vol.7 Spring 2010
- byYi Soo-hyung
- Your Paradise
Tr. Jennifer Lee 2004250pp.
Your Paradise is a work based on a true story that took place on a little island in Korea in the 1960s. Perhaps because of the continual rift between what is “normal” and “abnormal,” and between “mainland” and “island,” the book remains popular.
Your Paradise, published in 1976 and reprinted more than 100 times since, is a steady seller, the most representative work by Yi Chong-Jun, and a major work of modern Korean literature. One of the reasons that this book, not quite an easy read, became a steady seller may lie in the intense longing evoked by the title, Your Paradise. If the title of another novel, The Square by Choi In-hun, seeks reconciliation between an open space—the square—and a closed space—a secret room—Your Paradise depicts the extremely difficult process through which “your paradise” might become “our paradise.”
Why was it impossible, in the end, for “your paradise” to become “our paradise?” In this work set in the backdrop of a little island in the southern provinces of Korea, where sufferers of Hansen’s disease were quarantined since 1916, the otherness separating “us” from “them,” or “me” from “you,” is symbolic as well as historical.
Based on modern medical discourse, it is declared that the patients of the disease will be treated and protected in the name of science; and the patients, who had suffered on the mainland, give their trust and devotion to the director of the hospital who promises them that together, they will turn their little island into a paradise.
What they get in return, however, is nothing but bitter betrayal. Your Paradise, based on a true story that took place on an island in the 1960s and 70s, unfolds with a scene in which a new director comes to the island with a dark past. The new director, well aware of the failures of the previous director, makes efforts to stand on the side of the patients and to build a paradise, but faces failure with each attempt because of the mistrust of the patients. The strained tension between the director and the patients reaches its climax when they must deal with a large-scale reclamation project to connect the island to the mainland. Did they indeed succeed in creating a paradise?
And was the enormous gap between the director (representing the population at large) and the patients, and between the island and the mainland, bridged in the end? The last wish expressed by the director, that “the hearts of the people may be joined together before dirt and stones are,” is quite a tentative wish compared to the rose-colored prospects for a paradise.
It reflects the humble wisdom that before hastily trying to unite “us” and “them,” the differences between “us” and “them” must be acknowledged. “Our paradise” is probably still in progress. However, people must have realized one truth, at least, that rash attempts to create “our paradise” will only result in “your paradise.” In that respect, the end of Your Paradise points to a beginning, and not an end.
Has there ever been another Korean writer who looked into the concept of “otherness” between people as deeply and for as long as Yi Chong-Jun? His novels are famous for not coming to a positive ending. It is a different kind of pleasure, however, to glimpse hints of a positive beginning through a negative ending.
Yi Chong-Jun (1939–2008) produced seventeen novels, 155 short stories, and one play over the course of his career. His notable works include Your Paradise, Seopyeonje, and “The Wounded.” Nine of his works were cinematized, including Secret Sunshine, which was based on his story “The Abject.” He received the Dongin Literary Award, Yi Sang Literary Award, Lee San Literature Prize, and the Daesan Literary Award. He was also posthumously awarded the Geumgwan Order of Cultural Merit. His works have been translated into English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese.