In Search of the Perfect Sound: Song of Strings by Kim Hoon
- onMarch 28, 2017
- Vol.35 Spring 2017
- byChristine Jordis
- Le chant des cordes (Song of Strings)
Tr. Han Yumi and Hervé Péjaudier 2016304pp.
Here is a book brimming with boundless energy, conjuring up the elements in all their vitality: wind, water, earth, and fire; the rivers and seas, the mountains, trees, and grass. It speaks of life and death over the centuries and at the heart of sixth-century Korea, of raging conflicts and the desire for peace. Death is dispensed by iron, collected and shaped by Yaro the blacksmith with the help of his son Yajeok. Life is the sound of the zither, an endlessly repeating resonance that requires the participation of the heart and not just the body, as continuously practiced by Ureuk, the master of music.
The old king of Gaya is dying. As custom dictates, thirty chosen ones, consisting of courtiers and artisans, village chiefs and peasants, mothers and favorites, will be buried alive with the monarch. His corpse isn’t the only thing rotting: the whole kingdom is in a state of decay, ravaged by war and strewn with decomposing bodies. Sometimes entire battles come to an end simply because all the combatants have been exterminated. Nobody wins, not Goguryeo in the north, nor Baekje in the southwest, nor Shilla in the southeast—even if the last of these is ultimately destined to prevail.
Ara, favorite of the dying king, makes a nighttime escape to avoid her cruel fate. The guards believe that this gross breach of the law will cause terrible disorder in the world, a state of chaos reaching even into heaven. It is vitally important that she be recaptured, and so all the king’s soldiers set out to pursue her. In the meantime, the funeral master is clear: the ritual must be carried out urgently, and most importantly without any screaming or crying. If necessary, the women and children will be gagged and, as a last resort, their throats cut from behind. But the honor bestowed on those buried alive, who must enter their tomb just before the lowering of the royal coffin, appears to fall far short of restoring the harmony that was so jeopardized by the favorite’s betrayal. Human laws, however strict, are powerless in the face of widespread death and decay.
During her respite, far from the stench of the king’s rotting body, Ara discovers the beauty of the world: “So this is what water is like? Water is expansive, it is vast, it goes on and on, and all the way over there it touches the sky. It flows like the wind, the wind blows against me.” Mountains and rivers become one with the human body. Life is unity; it is harmony, like music, like the “peaceful times,” while iron, which clashes and shatters, reigns over the world of war, of tombs where kings lie.
Yaro, and Ureuk, and Isabu, the warlord and supreme commander of the troops of the victorious kingdom of Shilla—each is searching for peace, both for the world and for themselves. Ara, recaptured by the king’s successor, is buried alive as the law dictates; in turn Bihwa, also young, beautiful and desirable, filled with passion and yearning, perishes after being bitten by a poisonous snake, thus rejoining the earth that she seems to incarnate. But Ureuk, in the end, manages to create the Gaya zither, a magnificent instrument with twelve strings and abundant decoration, capable of producing the much sought-after perfect song. The dying king had ordered him to give his zither a different song for each village in the kingdom: “Each village has its own language, its distinct mountains and rivers, even its own wind and rain,” so why should all the songs in the world be contained in a single song? Everyone has their own voice, and so they must have their own song: this was the old king’s order. But Ureuk chooses to disobey. Music does not belong to anyone: each sound follows its own path, free, always new, always ephemeral.
This beautiful novel results from the noblest of ambitions: a fundamental quest for harmony and intimate truth, beyond noise, rage, and war. We must each perceive, or create, the perfect sound, without seeking to appropriate it for ourselves. The translation into French, by Han Yumi and Hervé Péjaudier, is magnificent: we feel we are reading not a translation, but rather the work of a genuine French writer.
by Christine Jordis
Writer, editor, and literary critic