Book Reviews 

Yi Mun-yol, The Poet, translated by Chong-wha Chung and Brother Anthony of Taize,  
Harvill Press, 1995, xvi + 207pp. 

Once in a while, when you despair of contemporary writing, a work comes along that inspires you with hope again. Yi Mun-yol's The Poet is such a work, a truly creative invigoration of the novel form, that lodges hauntingly in the memory. 
Its subject is the historical figure Kim Pyong-yon. Born in 1807 into a Korean ruling class family, his hopes and fortunes are cataclysmically reversed when his grandfather, a provincial governor, is defeated by rebels. Worse, the grandfather is converted to the rebels' cause. Worse still, he changes sides again and surrenders to the government. He is executed and his heirs to the third generation are condemned to death. Because the  
family has powerful connexions the death sentence is removed from his heirs, but their property remains confiscated.  
It is a moving story. The poet and his brother are brought up by one of his father's freed serfs and reclaimed by their parents after the death sentence is commuted, only to have their father die young from the struggle for survival. The physical hardships of village life are bad enough, but they suffer in addition a recurrent social ostracism each time it is discovered they are descendants of their grandfather, and are driven out of whichever village they have settled in. 
'The entire retaliatory system against treason was tenacious and thorough. The royal court might have decided against carrying out the penalty directly, but that by no means meant that the system as such had abandoned its malice towards them.'The mother never surrenders her aristocratic pride, and encouraged by her aspirations  
Kim Pyong-yon plans to regain the family's honour and status by entering the government examinations as a gateway to a public career. The mastery of classical poetic forms was a basic component of this process, and to test his expertise, Kim Pyong-yon entered a competition. The subject posted was 'write in celebration of the  
loyal death of Chong Shi, the county magistrate of Kasan, deploring the terrible crime of Kim Ik-sun.' Kim Ik-sun was Kim's grandfather. 
Kim wins the competitlon, but does not claim the prize, fearful of the ignominy of admitting his ancestry. He gets drunk in a tavern, where he meets a wandering poet Noh Jin. Noh Jin is full of praise for the prize winning poem, but when he realizes that Kim is the poet, and has castigated his grandfather, his admiration turns to contempt. 
This is more than a personal issue. The conflict between the two principles of loyalty to state and to family was a conflict between the two basic principles of Korean society. The rift produces what Yi Mun-yol calls a 'haemorrhage' in the individual's consciousness, and at crucial episodes through the novel, the poet does indeed cough up blood. 
The later official examinations are a fiasco. The examination hall is overcrowded, the upper classes have sent their servants in advance to secure their places, and in some cases hired scholars to write their papers. Kim, like many others, does not even try to compete, but goes off and gets drunk, and soon after begins the wandering life which is his till the end. 
Mastering the classical poetic forms is the first of the five stages of the poetic life. The novel now follows Kim's career through the rest. For a while he lives as a house guest with Ahn Ung-su, a wealthy man around whom literary figures collected.  
But when his identity as the grandson of a traitor is discovered, he is frozen out of that milieu. He spends a period writing formal poetry for local magistrates and rich gentry, travelling from house to house and village to village, associating with the kisaeng girls. The kisaeng girls entertained men of the higher class with music, dancing, poetry and sexual favors. Kim Pyong-yon would collaborate with them on poems, writing alternative lines. But tiring of this life, and the magistrates and gentry tiring of him as he returned for their hospitality too often, he then became a popular poet of the markets and streets, expressing the resentments of the people in satiric works. 
That phase came to an end when he was captured by bandits. Some bandits were simply thieves, others, others had a political ideology. 
This was a political group and he is conscripted by their leader into writing revolutionary poems, which are distributed in the townships the group plans to attack, in order to demoralize the populace. Some of the rich do indeed flee, but those who are unable to go elsewhere prepare to fight more vigorously, while the bandits, inspired by the heady rhetoric of political poetry, become overconfident. The whole episode is a deeply sardonic meditation on the political uses of literature. 
Finally the poet ceases to write at all, but when he mutters a few words, things materialize. His son, who has sought him out after the poet abandoned his family, observes that 'when his father recited something about birds, the most lovely bird would fly out from somewhere.' He speculates that 'his father's poetry did not really make things appear from nowhere, it simply made apparent what had been there all the time.'  
But he is not certain, and the possibility reains that the poet has in his final stage attained a shamanistic unity with nature. 
Kim Pyong-yon is known as Kim Sakkat from the bamboo hat he always wore, 'symbol of a self-imposed withdrawal from the light of the sun, a recognition that through no particular fault of his own he must for ever bear the burden of an inherited guilt,' the translators tell us. Souvenir and art shops sell wood carvings of him today,  
the bamboo hat his distinguishing mark. Yi Mun-yol has drawn on the surviving accounts of his life, citing the various traditions and evaluating the likely truth of the episodes. Since there are numerous Korean accounts of the poet, this evaluating strategy is as important as the narrative. It contributes to the unique tone of the work, which has a powerful restraint and facticity. It moves effortlessly from evocative narrative to  
objective analysis. Occasionally it bursts out into literary efflorescence, with one of Kim Sikkat's poems. The crucial encounters with other poets, like Noh-Jin, or like the Old Drunkard, provide extended dramatized interludes within a concise historical narrative.  
These are encounters in which the nature of poetry is examined, and in which the distance between Kim's own evolving state, and the developed wisdom of his interlocutors, is the powerful theme. 'If poetry is of such great use, those who produce it ought to receive some great gain. Yet the only thing the poet gains in the poem  
itself, 'Kim complains. 'A poem gained may be considered a great gain, 'the Old Drunkard explains. 'But what is that great gain?' 'Something that makes the poet free, and therefore makes others free.' 'What do you mean by being made free?' 'Mind and body casting off their bonds,' said the old man. 
Overall it is a very austere novel, having something of the tone of Samuel Johnson's Rasselas, a work of wisdom with that same mixture of the witty, the sardonic and the deeply considered. Its analysis of the historical conditions of Korean society, of official tyranny and of the hardship and poverty of the people co-exists with an equally challenging analysis of the nature of poetry and the poetic vocation. 
And its levels are multiple. The author Yi Mun-yol, born in 1948, is the son of a communist who defected to North Korea, leaving his family in a comparable situation to Kim's family after the grandfather's defection to the rebels. Yi Mun-yol writes in the preface. 
'It was in the summer of 1984 that I first became interested in the life of that unique poet Kim the Bamboo Hat, as a literary topic. I had previously read and heard a fair amount about him, but what provoked my sudden literary interest that year may have been the controversy surrounding the publication of my Yong-ung Si-dae (Heroic Age).  
There is a risk of over-simplification, but essentially Heroic Age represents a disavowal of my own father, and people generally believe that the original reason forcing Kim out into a life of wandering was something similar.'  
This is not a sub-text, but part of the invited context of this extraoradinary novel. It is the authorial involvement that gives an added dimension to a most powerful work . The translators, Chong-wha Chung and Brother Anthony of Taize have done an excellent job. They have provided a preface and elucidatory notes that supply necessary information for non-Korean readers. But their great achivement has been in producing a translation of admirable clarity and subtlety of expression, that lives unforgettably in English. 

Michael Wilding, 
first published in Australia's"Overland" literary review.