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
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
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.
first published in Australia's"Overland"