|Absurdity and Human Consciousness
Together with Ch'oe In-hun,Yi Ch'ong-jun is one of Korea's
most representative modern writers. However, in contrast to contemporary
literary trends which tend to overemphasize social realism, Yi, and in
a certain sense Ch'oe, have created a realism of a higher dimension, using
rich symbolism to explore the essential nature of humanity and the mysteries
of existence. As a result, Yi has encountered considerable resistance from
readers who do not understand his intent. He has responded to this resistance
in a number of works, including the novella Wall of Rumors (Somun ui pyok,
1971) and his Introduction to Linguistic Sociology 1,2,3 ( ono sahoehak
soron 1,2,3, 1972). While these works take fictional form, strictly speaking
they are treatises on the author's literary vision. Some readers have naturally
discovered many overly conceptual and abstract elements in them. In my
opinion, Yi would have done well to express his opinions regarding fiction
in the form of an "aesthetic of the novel" or a "theory of the novel,"
rather than in the fictional form itself. By doing so, he would have created
a truly valuable body of literary criticism and added depth and maturity
to his fiction.
In this article, I will first demonstrate that, while
Yi's later works do contain abstract and overly conceptual elements, these
are not removed from the essence of human existence; rather they are deeply
rooted in that existence. I will then consider the full body of Yi's work,
showing how the author's vision of a specific reality is realized when
these "conceptual elements" are successfully fused with the "latticed"
novel format. I will also consider the dangers inherent in this method
when Yi fails to combine these elements. Such an analysis is possible because,
while Yi has written hundreds of stories and novels, they are all organically
Yi Ch'ong-jun wrote the following in the afterword of
his second collection, Wall of Rumors.
My writing began as an act of personal redemption,
and I am not ashamed of the fact that I continue to invest much of my effort
in that cause. While I may be open to certain misunderstandings or criticism
as a result, I do not try to absorb those misunderstandings or criticism
in my writing, because as a writer, I want to make the world in which I
live a more honest place and, at the same time, hope to find in my literature
not only a purely personal redemption but also universal human redemption.
That is the simplest and most basic literary ethic.
It is no coincidence that Yi made his literary debut with
"Discharge From the Hospital" (T'oewon, 1965), which examines the healing
of psychological wounds. We will begin with a careful examination of this
early story, then consider how Yi has developed the theme of self examination
and salvation throughout his work.
While much is refracted through the prism of the author's
consciousness, "Discharge From the Hospital" can be seen as a self-portrait,
expressed by a narrator who has many serious problems. In the story, the
narrator goes to a small hospital run by his friend, an internist named
Chun. Chun diagnoses the narrator with a gastric ulcer, and a white-coated
nurse, who offers the narrator a mirror and stimulants, tells him he is
a victim of "self-inflicted amnesia."
Why does the narrator have these illnesses and how does
he treat his problems? The author does not tell us directly, but there
are two basic causes for his illnesses. His "self-inflicted amnesia" is
related to psychological scars incurred from an childhood incident involving
his father, while his ulcer is the result of trauma during military service.
In the course of the story the narrator reveals that
when he was in the third grade his father discovered him napping in a storeroom
with several undergarments that he had stolen from his mother and sisters.
The narrator describes the feeling and smell of the undergarments and his
father's anger. As punishment, his father locks him in the store room without
food for two days. When the boy emerges, he find the undergarments ripped
to shreds, and his father scolds him for not being hungry after two days
without food, suggesting that his son is unaffected by what he sees as
normal punishment. At the time, his father hired Chun, the future doctor,
as a tutor, but the narrator soon refuses to call him teacher and leaves
home for Seoul. Sometime later, when he discovers his mother's obituary
in the newspaper, the narrator returns to his father's house and encounters
Chun. It is on this occasion that he learns Chun has opened a hospital
in Seoul. He runs away to the army, although he is well over draftable
age and becomes a soldier with the unlikely nickname "Snake-catcher," a
reflection of his gruesome experiences in the service. One day while out
on operations, the narrator catches a brightly colored snake. He skins
the reptile and fits its skin over a smooth stick, making a baton for his
platoon commander. Thus the nickname "Snake-catcher."
Next he captures a viper, makes its skin into a baton
for his battalion commander and gives the meat to his company commander.
Soon the company commander and staff sergeant are bribing him to bring
them snake meat on a regular basis.
After his discharge from the army, the narrator goes
to Chun and borrows money to start his own business. "Lady Luck" escapes
him, however, and he ends up "swallowing" the money Chun has lent him.
A year later he returns to Chun's hospital with stomach pains. This is
when Chun diagnoses a gastric ulcer and the nurse says he is a victim of
At first glance, one could assume that the narrator's
habitual napping with the undergarments of his mother and sisters represents
a desire to escape from reality and isolate himself from society. However,
when viewed from the broader perspective of Yi's writings as a whole, this
is not simply a strange escapist habit. Rather, as the author himself has
revealed in Wall of Rumors, the narrator's actions are the pure and unadulterated
actions of a person attempting to understand and explain his own mysterious
private secret. He is exploring his self, searching for a new vision and
order, but his ambitions are ripped to shreds, like the women's clothes
he was clutching, by his father, who represents the existing world order.
His father criticizes him for not being hungry after being locked in the
store room, refuses to allow his son to find his own path in life, and
insists that his son follow the "rules of the jungle" as he has. His father
discovers his son in the darkness and destroys his fantastic and primitive
efforts to pursue the most fundamental maternal love. As a result, the
son loses all connection to basic human love and leaves his home to walk
the path of alienation. Finally, within the framework of the military,
he fights a war within a war, ceaselessly hunting snakes, possibly symbols
of humanity's expulsion from paradise. Later he is discharged from the
army, only to become a victim of "self-inflicted amnesia," suffering from
a gastric ulcer. As he confronts once more the "rules of the jungle" which
govern society outside the military organization, he forgets himself as
a human being and becomes an ulcerous existence searching only for things
In the end, the narrator is cured by Chun and Miss Yun,
the nurse who brings him the mirror and medicine, and discharged from the
hospital filled with patients dying from swollen stomachs. In his discharge,
the author suggests that we need something to save humanity from misguided
modern society. This central theme, evident in Yi's very first work, is
repeated and expanded throughout his career.
Yi Ch'ong-jun established himself as a major writer with
the short story "The Deformed and the Idiot" (Pyo ٧ngshin gwa mojori)
which won him the 1967 Tongin Award. In the story Yi successfully expanded
on the theme presented in "Discharge From the Hospital." As many critics
have pointed out, the structure of this highly condensed story centers
around the conflict between two brothers separated by age and differing
philosophies of life. The older brother is a wounded veteran of the Korean
War, a conflict embodying the principle of the strong preying on the weak,
and the younger brother, while not yet initiated into the realities of
life, stands in silent opposition to his brother's Darwinist outlook.
Yi Ch'ong-jun uses his extraordinary aesthetic technique
to frame the story in two dimensions. The reader may have trouble seeing
beyond the "mask" if he or she does not pay close attention. At first glance,
the younger brother appears incapable of making responsible decisions.
He seems unrealistic, listlessly passing the time inside a vacuum of meaningless
concepts. His brother, on the other hand, appears to be a successful person,
living in a rational and practical manner. Of course, like all well-crafted
works of art, this story has a certain ambiguity and the potential to reveal
that side of the story, but if we look more closely we find the story is
set within a quite different thematic context. While the younger brother
has not had the gruesome experiences of the narrator in "Discharge From
the Hospital," he indirectly shares in his older brother's wartime experiences
through the vehicle of the novel which his brother writes in an attempt
to confirm the validity of his Darwinist theories on life, much like Ishmael
in Melville's Moby Dick. Throughout the story, the younger brother observes
his brother's frustration in his struggle to survive according to Darwin's
principle of the survival of the fittest. He silently questions the meaning
of the contradictions and conflict of human life. One could say that the
author, in the guise of the younger brother, is exploring ways that man,
cursed by his very humanity, can survive in this barren land with his goodness
Let us consider, then, what is behind the older brother's
mask and what is the meaning of the pain of the war wounded. To do this
we must review the plot.
The story begins with the older brother, who having won
his present wife in a fight with another man, sets about the "strange task"
of writing a novel while neglecting his work as a surgeon after "digging
the soul from the body of a ten year-old girl" who was suffering from an
The day before the older brother begins writing his novel
he appears in his painter-brother's studio. Looking into the outlines of
a face his brother is drawing, he inexplicably says, "That human face,
soon to be born, those eyes, that mouth, they need to be a bit more venomous...
" then offers to buy his brother a drink. The older brother leads the way
onto the rainy streets. As they pass a new bank under construction, he
inadvertently steps on the hand of a beggar child who is reaching out with
a few coins in his palm. Seeing this, the younger brother feels a sudden
hatred for his brother. However, he interprets his brother's action as
an attempt to confirm something because of what his brother said in the
studio and the fact that the young girl died under his knife only a few
The next day the younger brother is seized by the anxious
feeling that he won't be able to paint until his brother finishes his novel.
He finds his brother's manuscript and discovers that it contains a startling
image of his brother's childhood experiences on a deer-hunting expedition
in their home village. The brother was a young boy at the time and had
been drawn to the hunting party by the sound of gunshots ringing through
the forest. The deer-hunting story was linked to his older brother's tragic
Korean War experiences. The war story describes the mistreatment of a gentle,
intellectual recruit named Kim at the hands of the brutal, career officer
O Kwan-mo, as well as his older brother's reaction to the brutality and
the three men's experiences in the mountains after they were separated
from their battalion in a Chinese communist attack. The brother finds Kim
badly injured, and after the Chinese withdraw, takes him to a cave to nurse
him. There he encounters O. The three men end up living in the cave together.
The older brother watches in silence as O abuses Kim. He feels certain
that Kim will someday die at O's hand. He even considers killing Kim himself,
to put him out of his misery, but he cannot make himself do it.
I spoke a little louder, and when Kim's expression
remained unchanged, I reached out and removed the bandage from his wound.
The cloth was stiff with dried blood and pus. I gasped at the sight. The
walls of the wound were collapsing like an earthen cliff. I looked into
his eyes once more. Ah, maybe he had understood what I'd said. Or maybe
he had sensed it all from the atmosphere around us and had now turned his
ear inward to the final sounds of life echoing deep within himself. Surprisingly
his eyes were filled wit a clear liquid. He had stopped blinking so the
liquid wouldn't flow down his cheeks. Then his eyes dried, as if they had
swallowed his tears. The blank pupils were fixed on a spot on the ceiling.
That's when I thought Kim would be better off dead.
After reading to this point in his brother's novel, the
younger brother is frustrated by his brother's lack of courage in the face
of O's brutality and in the matter of putting an end to Kim's pain. In
his frustration, he finishes the novel in his own words. When O goes out
to search for food, he writes, "I dragged Kim from the cave and shot him."
The next day the younger brother feels strange, perhaps,
he thinks, because his old girlfriend Hye-in, who left him for a doctor
is marrying that day. For the first time in many days he begins to paint
again. "I wasn't sure whether I should go to Hye-in's wedding or not, but
I felt as if I were ready to paint, and after concentrating on the canvas
for a while I forgot all about her wedding." Suddenly his older brother
appears, eyes bloodshot from drink. He makes several vague criticisms of
his brother's handling of the Hye-in affair, then takes up a kitchen knife
and slashes the canvas, leaving it shredded like "a sail torn in a storm."
Later the younger brother goes to his brother's room
and looks through the manuscript once more. His brother has erased the
portion he wrote and headed in a completely different direction. In his
brother's version, O calls Kim a "useless human being," drags him outside
and shoots him. His brother recalls the "spots of blood on the endless
field of snow" from his childhood experience and runs outside to find Kim.
As he stares at the body, he realizes O is watching him from above, the
gun still in his hand. He turns and shoots O.
Now the younger brother understands why his brother slashed
his painting. It is because he recalls the unerasable lines of blood that
covered his face after shooting O. Later the older brother visits the younger
brother in a drunken stupor and says he has burned the novel because he
actually saw O, who he had believed dead. The younger brother senses that
his brother is hopelessly "caught on a snag."
But what was the older brother like before he became
snagged on this "dark heavy thing"? Compared to the younger brother, he
had a much more scientific and positive approach to life. And he is humane
enough to be incapable of shooting Kim himself and troubled by the death
of the girl. But when his mask is peeled away, we find a man thoroughly
devoted to Darwinism, a self-serving egotist who doesn't know the meaning
of altruism, a man who could step on the hand of a beggar child and not
even notice. His character is evident in his novel: his "curiosity" at
the sound of gunfire, the sound of death and cruelty. After seeing the
deer dripping blood as it ran through the snow field, he went home and
lay down, but he couldn't stay away from the deer-hunting expeditions for
long. He also admitted feeling a strange excitement and impatience when
he saw the "blue light" in Kim's eyes as O beat him. His character was
best revealed, however, when he shot O. In some ways, one could see this
as a final act of courage, an effort to eliminate the fundamental evil
embodied in O and also an effort to revenge Kim's death. Ironically, however,
he shot O out of a self-serving desire not to end up like Kim, regardless
of what he said about his regrets for fighting among friends. This view
is confirmed by the fact that the older brother sees a mythical parallel
between himself and Cain.
The shot swept through the ravine as if it were driving
away the silence of the mountain, then disappeared over the ridge. A strange
longing rode the echo to fill my heart. Suddenly an indistinct face rose
before me like a shadow playing on the surface of the water. I felt as
if I would recognize it, if only it were a bit more distinct. It was a
face that I had known and longed for from long ago, perhaps from even before
I was in my mother's womb. Before I could remember, the face disappeared.
I closed my eyes. And pulled the trigger again and again. The shots filled
the valley once more. A salty taste kept flowing into my mouth.
The bullets were gone and the sound of the shots stopped.
The face covered in blood was smiling. It was my face.
Most important is the pain that the elder brother felt
after killing his comrade, practically a brother himself, in order to win
their fight. This must be the pain felt by those injured in the Korean
War. Similarly, the older brother's anguish over the death of the girl
patient was not so much because she died as a result of his mistake but
because he participated in her death, causing memories of his experiences
in the war to return. Where does the pain of someone who wins by killing
another come from? One could say it derives from deep within the heart,
from the conflict between the human conscience and the brute killer instinct.
This is why we rediscover the value of human existence when we feel this
pain and reconfirm that we are indeed human.
Forever anxious, my older brother lived inside that
pain. He knew where the pain was coming from. And he could endure it. In
fact, the strength to endure that pain made it possible for him to live
on and for him to assert himself as he did.
When he felt this human pain, he could rationalize the
fact that he shot O Kwan-mo by saying he did it to eliminate evil. However,
when he "saw" (We don't know whether it was a hallucination or not.) that
O, the personification of evil, was still alive, he felt as if his "insides
were snagged on a dark heavy thing... shattered to pieces." He did not
know how to react to the absurd reality.
What is the significance of the model of the younger
brother who stands in contrast to the brother portrayed above? He appears
helpless and naive, but unlike his older brother, he is trying to escape
the ranks of the "descendants of Cain" who instinctively struggle to rule
the "jungle." Unlike his brother who fought for his wife, the younger brother
appears calm when his girlfriend marries another man. He is an altruist,
armed with a transcendental love that overcomes his own narrow desires
and brave enough to paint a picture of his lover after she has left him.
His older brother, who lives in a completely different
reality, impulsively slashes the painting to pieces in an expression of
his own complicated mental state, but we can be certain that the painting's
significance is great because the pain that the younger brother felt as
he tried to paint was not that of a wounded veteran but a pain born of
the effort to create a new order which transcended the unconscious world
he had discovered in that dark storage room as a child, that is the pain
of artistic creativity. Because the act of creating art is premised on
the creation of an ideal order, itself premised on complete harmony, there
were more than sufficient elements of virtue, albeit temporal and conceptual.
Thus the structural frame of this story-the older brother's
novel and the younger brother's painting-an artistic form in itself, combines
with the content in an osmotic action to create a successful piece of literature.
When viewed from this context, while the younger brother, on the surface,
seems incapable of acting positively and appears unrealistic, trapped within
vague concepts, he is in fact a person experiencing a kind of pain that
has "no clear face" in his search for an escape from the mechanical and
tragic absurdity of existence. He tries to pierce through the form of contradictory
life, through his brother's experience, and criticize it amidst the silence
of the insignificant battle for the survival of the fittest.
Profound pathos underlies stories like "The Target" (Kwa'nyok,
1966) which uses the allegory of an archer and his signal boy to portray
the task of the writer in modern society, and "Pregnant Man" (Imbu, 1966),
which portrays the life of a man working for an undertaker, but Yi is even
more successful in his use of the same allegorical forms within the "latticed"
format in the masterful short story "Tightrope" (Chul, 1966). which tells
of the life and death of a man born to an acrobatic family, and the novella,
The Falconer (Maejapi, 1968), a brilliant three-dimensional probe into
man's rejection of the hereditary inconsistencies of existence, the evolution
of human consciousness and the artist's "vision."
Like so many of Yi's early works, "Tightrope," a two-sided
and tightly constructed story, seems quite simple on the surface, but in
it Yi uses a very sophisticated method. As one approaches the stock memory
portrayed in it, the heart of the story can be missed.
In "Tightrope," the narrator, a newspaper reporter covering
cultural affairs, is headed for the town of C. in Cholla Province to cover
a story about a tightrope walker who has "ascended" to Heaven. After spending
a night with an "honest" prostitute in an inexpensive inn there, the reporter
meets a man who tells him the story of the tightrope walker.
The tightrope walker's name was Un, "Cloud" in Korean.
His father was also a career tightrope walker who had walked the wire every
day of his life except for a night, when Un was two years old, that he
strangled Un's mother because he suspected her of having an affair with
the head of the circus. When Un was ten, his father said, "For the tightrope
walker there's no ground worth walking on in this world," and taught him
the almost Tao-like ways of the tightrope walker. Then, on the first day
his son performed, the father fell to his death. Ultimately, his father
"did not rule the wire. The wire ruled him."
After his father's death, the boy becomes a famous tightrope
walker, performing much higher than even his father had. One autumn day
after a performance in C, he found a bouquet of chrysanthemums waiting
for him. A woman had brought the flowers. When he learned that she was
waiting for him in a cherry orchard, he rushed there and made love to her
with the fervor he felt after performing on the wire. Afterward, he confessed
his love to her, but she said she was afraid. "I felt love when I saw you
up on the tightrope, but now that you're here beside me... I'm afraid."
Un takes her by the throat and begins strangling her, but then he remembers
his father. "He was able to walk the wire after he killed Mother, but I...
I'm not sure," he murmurs and releases her. The next day he walks the wire
at such height, the circus master cries, "Look! The ascent of man! Isn't
it beautiful?" and Un falls to his death. In the end we learn that the
woman was lame and loved Un not as a man but for his legs and the way he
flew through the air like a crane.
After hearing this story, the newspaper reporter returns
to the inn and sleeps with the "honest" prostitute once more. The next
morning he hears that the man who told him the story of Un has died. When
he goes to see the man one last time he meets the prostitute now wearing
mourning clothes. She tells him that she sold herself to make money for
the man's funeral. In his heart he wants to believe that the prostitute's
mother was the lame woman.
On the surface this story seems to portray Un's father
as a man dedicated to his craft and Un himself as a weakling who committed
suicide after falling in love with a woman he had only just met. However,
while the core of the point that Yi is trying to make does lie in the cruel
fact that no man can "rule the wire," Yi does not simply portray the dignity
and greatness of man; he is attempting to portray the evolution of man's
consciousness of human value. Un's father walks the wire after killing
his wife, and the woman with the chrysanthemums has been cursed with a
handicap by the gods, but she loved Un's legs for the way they flew through
the air like a crane. That is to say, while it may be optimism about Darwin's
theory of evolution and dialectic science, the most important thing for
the nineteenth-century father and lame woman was not human individuality
but tightrope walking and the inhumane, mechanical cosmic order linked
to it. However, for the next generation-that is Un and the "honest" prostitute-true
love for man and humanity itself were more important than tightrope walking
or money. When Un realized that the lame woman loved his tightrope walking
and not him, he chose death over the wire. And the prostitute, who like
the lame woman was living at the bottom of society, displayed a true love
for humanity, quite different from the greed of her imaginary mother, the
lame woman, when she confessed that she sold her body to pay for a man's
funeral. This story is a beautiful mythical model aimed at revealing the
value of human love.
The Falconer shares the same theme as many of the works
already mentioned. In it Yi examines the possibilities of substituting
love and friendship for the mechanical and calculating nature of human
relations in modern society and dramatically portrays the process by which
the falconer Kwak's consciousness about life and his profession changes.
After Kwak loses his falcon, Lightning Bolt, on a hunting expedition with
a deaf-mute boy called the "Dummy," an old acquaintance returns the bird
free of charge, breaking the old custom which required the falconer to
pay a heavy price for the return of a lost falcon or to work off the fee
by hunting the falcon in the district where it was recovered. Kwak is devastated
by the realization that the old ways are no longer valid and uses the reward
money he has borrowed from an old client to drink himself senseless. After
returning to his village, he takes to his bed and starves himself and his
falcon for three days. On the fourth day he rises and shows the boy how
a falcon dispatches a rooster.
Lightning Bolt swooped down on the rooster... The rooster
flapped about as it struggled frantically for its life, taxing the ailing
Lightning Bolt. The falcon shook the rooster, ripping and tearing at its
throat, but spent as much time on the ground as the rooster. Finally, crimson
began squirting from the rooster's throat-or was it from somewhere on Lightning
Bolt? The Dummy and his father remained motionless, watching the horrifying
spectacle. Finally the falcon penetrated the rooster's breast. A demon
bird, her head covered with blood, Lightning Bolt ripped the entrails free
and began pecking at them. The falcon paused from time to time to shake
the blood from her beak. Soon her feathers and the surrounding earth were
flecked with crimson. Before long she abandoned the rooster and wiped off
her beak in a gesture of satisfaction. But then her tottering grew even
more pronounced than before, as if the sudden satiation had robbed her
of all strength.
Later Kwak sends the falcon into the sky and retreats
to his old client's shed where he starves himself to death. After Kwak's
death, Chung-shik, the deaf-mute boy, says he will never go hunting with
the falcon again. Lightning Bolt returns to the village, however, and when
the narrator asks the boy if he would like to become a falconer, he senses
a frightening hostility in the boy's eyes, "as if all the ferocity and
obstinacy of the deaf and mute had coalesced in the boy."
Ultimately, the falconer's suicide was an escape from
the contradictions of the human condition and an embrace of a powerful
morality which sought to assert human values through death. As such it
was a sad and extremely limited human attempt to reveal the truth. As the
narrator says, "... maybe by shifting the focus from the falcon to his
own humanity, the falconer was struggling one last time for the truth in
which he believed, albeit by different means than in the past."
The significance of Kwak's death is similar to that of
the younger brother's quiet patience in "The Deformed and the Idiot" and
Un's suicide in "Tightrope." That is to say, Kwak's refusal to eat was
not a fast to the death so much as a fast for "rebirth." Of course, Kwak
was not physically reborn, but he was spiritually reborn in the deaf-mute
boy's decision not to carry on the brutal falconry tradition.
The novella, The Tuner (Choyulsa, 1971), specifically
deals with Yi's point of view. The main character, who fasts in an attempt
to cure a stomach ailment, is Kwak, the falconer, in another guise, and
his niece Shin-i is the deaf-mute boy reborn. However, what draws our attention
is the plight of the tuner who is searching for a way of transmitting his
own voice out of the doorless tuning room where he is imprisoned and has
smashed all the instruments around him.
Hey! Did you smash those instruments on purpose? I've
got the sound. I don't need those instruments. They just deliver a sound.
They can't transmit sound to people from this room. If I went outside,
I'd just find another instrument to make the sound.
The tuner fantasizes that young Shin-i will discover an
instrument that will "transmit the sound" for him.
"I've never been absolutely sure but I feel as if I
have been waiting for rebirth my whole life."
The young man had been looking down until then. He
looked up at me now for the first time. I was astonished once more and
stared into his face as if I were trying to burn a hole through it. Rebirth,
rebirth... His face was wrinkled and he looked old, but wasn't that what
I looked like when I looked around the tuning room? I let out a shout so
loud it felt as if my larynx might rip apart and backed away from the tuner.
Then I began to run with all my might. It seemed like he had jumped up
and was chasing after me. It seemed like he kept calling out to me, saying
something. and then, all of a sudden, the voice was right at my ear.
Yi Ch'ong-jun has not limited himself to the portrayal
of the cold-hearted and cruel rules of the jungle or sacrifices made to
resist that order in his depiction of the absurd human condition. In fine
works such as "Shipwreck" (Shimmolson, 1968), "Jesus of the Happy Garden"(Haengbok'won
ui yesu, 1967), and "I'll Show You the Stars" (Pyol poyodurimnida, 1967)
Yi portrays the ironies of human realities with deep pathos.
In "Shipwreck" he depicts the pain and sadness of a child
growing to adulthood, using the traditional allegory of a ship as an allegory
for human life. "Jesus of the Happy Garden," on the other hand, is full
of satire in resistance to the power of God. The narrator of the latter
story leaves the Happy Garden Orphanage after catching a look at a woman
in the nude. He yearns for forgiveness and finds that it is not Jesus,
who has promised to always forgive, that pardons him but Old Ch'oe, a man
working at the orphanage. In this, the author not only demonstrates the
importance of human beings, but reveals himself as a true realist.
"I'll Show You the Stars" also betrays Yi's realist tendency.
In this story he uses a comic touch and exquisite structure to depict the
inconsistent structure of human existence. In this story, the narrator's
friend, an astronomy student, tricks him and steals his possessions. This
act symbolically is linked to his failed astronomy studies in England.
The story's consistency is furthered by the image of the failed astronomer's
telescope, for which he charges people 5 won to look at the stars. That
the stars visible through this telescope symbolize the fantastic spectrum
of tragic human life, like a mirage in a desert, needs no clarification
here. However, the reader must realize that while Yi indicts the contradictory
human condition which insists on chasing the stars even though it is obvious
they, like a mirage, cannot be captured, his final depiction of the telescope's
"funeral" is rich in moral significance.
"Let's hold a funeral. Those bastards can wait."
He held up the telescope. I felt another chill.
"You always were a good spectator. That's all you
need to do today. Just watch." His tone had changed somehow. Did that mean
he wasn't broken? He sounded as if he accepted what I thought as natural.
"I've thought about... I didn't want to be driven
away a second time. I lied because I couldn't stand it any longer if I
didn't betray myself."
Then he looked deep into the river. It was much quieter
now. When I started to row again he reached out and stopped me.
"Wait. This is a good spot."
He looked through the darkness at me, then after drawing
a large arc across the sky with his eyes, he dropped his gaze to the river
"I can't sell this back to those bastards. I thought
about it a lot last night. If I keep this thing, I'll just end up selling
it. So I was thinking about a funeral, a really nice one... If it goes
to sleep in a river dotted with these quiet stars, it will dream of stars,
He held the long glass against his chest as if he
were embracing a baby, then leaned over and pushed it into the river. After
that he stared into the water for a long time.
Yi Ch'ong-jun has said that he is an author born to create
new things, so he can hardly limit himself to tales of people struggling
with the contradictions of human existence. In his quest to "make the era
in which I live more honest," he searches for new directions.
He seems to have discovered a new road in the pursuit
and expansion of man's mythical essence based on humanity's fundamental
love. While searching for "purely personal redemption" in literature, he
has discovered "universal human redemption" and reveals where we may find
the "truth we must search for and realize."
The author's efforts in this direction are apparent in
short stories and novellas such as "Flower and Snake" (Kkot gwa paem, 1969),
False Sleep (Kasu, 1969), "Variation on the Theme of the Navel" (Paegopul
chujero han pyon-jugok, 1972), "Dream of a Mask," (Kamyon ui kkum, 1972)
and the poetic masterpiece, Iodo (1974).
In works such as the 1967 short story, "Hiking Diary"
(Tungsan'gi), Yi reveals a certain existential tendency, but in "Flower
and Snake" we see a dramatic portrayal of the alienation of the "flower
snake," a symbol of life amidst death, itself symbolized by a pile of artificial
flowers. In this story, Yi explains the importance of the continual flow
of life and its deep significance through myth. The father makes his living
selling artificial flowers, symbols of death, but discovers a "flower snake"
inside them. Yi-hwa and Kyong-son, on the other hand, dream of a living
flower with such fervency that they water artificial flowers. The author
describes the resentment in Yi-hwa's face when she returns to the house
of artificial flowers and a similar expression on the face of Kyong-son
who is of the next generation. His description is a confirmation of the
author's own longing and appreciation for the love that flows from the
flower of life and that place.
In the novella False Sleep, Yi points to the significance
of the mythical pattern of a similar life force. However, life's continuity
is more closely linked to the circular flow of time, and Yi expresses his
ideas in richer and more varied symbolic imagery. One could say that Yong-hun
in False Sleep represents all humanity, who live amidst loneliness and
fatigue, when he follows the railroad tracks into a tunnel. The train emerging
from the tunnel symbolizes the flow of time which begins at the origin
of existence residing in death and life. and embraces the danger that he
(and we) might soon be swallowed up in the flow of time.
From the first day he drove the E train Conductor Ch'oe
saw the man in the Panama hat walking along the tracks as soon as he emerged
from the tunnel. He walked, through the damp fog of summer, past the clouds
of cosmos flowers in autumn, never startling at the train's whistle, always
stepping from its path at the last possible moment and returning to the
track after it passed. He never had gotten a good look at the man's face.
Even when he blew the whistle or slowed down to pass, Ch'oe took special
care to slow down so as not to tempt the man. But he never could see what
he looked like. Sometimes he could see him, a tiny figure walking in the
distance, before the train even emerged from the tunnel.
The author is not emphasizing the circular path of life
so much as he is recognizing the psychological link or consciousness of
blood relationship that humans, who must live in this repetitive cycle
of existence, mythically possess. In False Sleep there are two men with
the name Chu Yong-hun. They share the same roots and one walks in the footprints
of the other. When they confront death they divide the name and even divide
Yong-hun's wife in the instinctive urge to prevent the flow of life from
being severed. This is all the more evident in the actions of the second
Yong-hun who maintains a pen-pal correspondence. And when Yong-hun commits
suicide it is not an abandonment of life but a result of an urge to return
to the fountain of life. The second Yong-hun chose death in an "effort
to recover the first Yong-hun's death."
He walked along the same railroad tracks, trying to
find traces of the other yong-hun and make them his own... In a sense,
he was trying to become the man who had taken his name and experience his
thoughts within his own mind.
When his actions are revealed to have taken place in a
state of "false sleep," their meaning becomes even clearer. A state of
false sleep implies the eyes are sleeping, that is, the conscious is sleeping,
but the subconscious is awake. Stated differently, in a state of false
sleep, the conscious is at rest, but the subconscious, the essence of life,
is moving, free from external pressures. Thus the author sees the state
of false sleep as an effort to live "honestly and with enthusiasm," refusing
to condemn life in that state.
Yi's masterful Iodo deals with a similar theme but is
much more successful as a work of literature. The novella combines an elaborate
structure, unique language and superb irony. As such it can be more difficult
for the reader than a novel that presents its message on the surface. However,
if we focus clearly on this novella, we find that the hero of Iodo, a reporter
named Ch'on Nam-sok, is in many ways another metamorphosis of Chu Yong-hun,
the main character in False Sleep. Lieutenant Son-u's visit to Ch'on Nam-sok's
wife to inform her of her husband's death mirrors that of the second Chu
Yong-hun's visit to the first Chu's wife to tell her of her husband's death.
In these two scenes the male characters discover fountains of loneliness
and longing in the women. Thus, in Iodo, the island which Ch'on Nam-sok
visits, representing all mankind, is not a real island; it is the life
force symbolized by the woman who works in the tavern called Iodo. Yi Ch'ong-jun
uses poetic language to link and unite the island that humanity longs for
with the women in these men's lives. At one point, Ch'on Nam-sook searches
desperately for something in "the total darkness." When Lieutenant Son-u
makes love to the woman, he realizes that Ch'on must have been searching
for the "island of life" that lived within the woman's silence.
From this perspective, we see that Iodo, the island of
han, the feeling of longing and regret that hangs over so much of Korean
literature and life, is not across the water in some distant place. It
is Cheju Island, a symbol of the real, living, breathing world. When Ch'on's
corpse washes up on the island's shore, we realize, as the author says,
that Ch'on had wanted to leave the island because he loved it so much.
This paradoxical logic comes into play again in Yi's novel This Paradise
of Yours (Tangshindul ui ch'o ٧n'guk)(1976).
This Paradise of Yours is set on the island of Sorokdo,
a leper colony, but it is clearly an extension of the themes explored in
Ioodo. The inhabitants of Sorokdo have been expelled from "paradise" because
of their affliction. In the novel, Yi explores how humanity can create
a better society through an analysis of human relations and morals in the
context of the relationship between the "ruler" and the "ruled." The novel's
reformist tendency is evident from the setting: a hospital, as in Yi's
debut story "Discharge From the Hospital." In the novel, the hospital director
launches a land reclamation project in an effort to demonstrate to his
patients the power of the human spirit. He also wants to make the leper
patients realize that the island, which so many have tried to escape, is
the only place for them. From the very beginning, the author hints at his
intentions. The newly arrived director is greeted with news of the escape
of two patients and is thus inspired to take action on their behalf. His
predecessors have tried to turn the island into a paradise many times before
only to become slaves to their own selfish altruism. That "altruism" is
symbolized by the bronze statue erected by the new director's predecessor.
Consequently, the new director is greeted by suspicious silence, but he
is determined to show the leper patients what the human will can achieve.
Between Pungnam Peninsula and Odong island stretched
a long white streak he had never seen before. All of those many months
of labor, hope, and despair flashed before his eyes. The next moment he
was dashing, almost rolling, down the hill. He took out a boat and drove
it toward Odong Island. But once he was on the water, the white line disappeared.
He suspected that he had been imagining things. However, when the boat
approached the first embankment area, he again saw the pale streak stretching
before him like a mirage. Both the ebb and flood tides were extreme at
this time of the year. The streak he had seen from the top of Oma Hill
was not the embankment itself but a string of white bubbles two feet under
the surface. His heart was bursting with excitement. For a while he closed
his eyes to quiet the tumult within him...
"Hurrah, Director Cho!"
"Hurrah, Sorok Island! Hurrah, Oma Recovery Corps!"
(translated by Chang Wang-rok and Chang Young-hee, Crescent Publications,
1986, pp. 213-214)
Of course, in the process of implementing the land reclamation
project, Director Cho is not immune to the psychological pressures represented
by the bronze statue. However, the important thing was he was able to overcome
those pressures through the power of his will, and further, he could proudly
proclaim his humanity after realizing what "paradise" really means.
The present is worth living only when there is a chance
of a different tomorrow. Even if today is happy, unless there is hope for
the future, the present cannot be a paradise. Eternal perfection with no
promise of choice or change is only an unbearable hell. A true paradise
depends not so much on its design as on the possibilities for growth that
it is able to offer. (Paradise, p. 319)
By showing us how Director Cho overcomes his own limitations,
Yi Ch'ong-jun expands his fictional world. The return of Yi Sang-uk, one
of the characters, to the island and the marriage of a former patient and
an unaffected woman which Cho himself has arranged reinforces the author's
theme. Marriage represents a new beginning, the creation of new life, love
and harmony. It is not simply an expression of belief; it is an expression
of Yi's belief in humanity, not in a dependence on God.
While this is a matter of opinion, I wonder if Yi couldn't
have achieved a more powerful aesthetic and psychological effect if he
had portrayed Director Cho in a more realistic manner, that is to say,
if he had not transformed Cho into a saint but left him to the frustrating
and tragic end we witness in "The Deformed and the Idiot," eliminating
the moralistic and "enlightening" elements that characterize the latter
part of the novel. However, given the fact that Yi's entire body of literature
has developed around the theme of reform or improvement in the context
of the contrapuntal relationship between doctor and patient, this would
have even impossible in this novel, without the establishment of two stories
and a two-dimensional point of view, as in his "latticed" stories.
Fortunately, in Yi's subsequent works, such as the short
story "Footprints in the Snow" (Nun'gil, 1977) or the novella The Cruel
City (Chaninhan toshi 1978), he communicates his convictions and hopes
through deeper literary context and exceptional imagery.
In images of a snow-covered path in the early morning
and a bus pulling from the station to carry a beloved son back to the outside
world, "Footprints in the Snow" is a poetic expression of the mythical
life force of the Korean woman. In this story, we discover how great a
mother's love for her son can be and how that love has made all our lives
warmer and richer. It also makes us consider our attitudes toward the older
The Cruel City is an allegorical tale of a convict recently
released from prison. Through rich symbolism it examines how man is to
live his life in a healthy manner. In the story, the ex-convict befriends
some birds whose wings have been clipped to prevent them from escaping.
The fettered birds and the man, whose own freedom has been limited, are
symbolically united. Like so many of Yi's works, the novella is two-dimensional.
In it the author expresses his resistance against the absurdities of the
human condition and the society in which we live. He asks: What are the
ethics on which we must depend? What direction should humanity take? As
the convict leaves the prison and enters the park where the birds live,
we sense humanity's longing for an escape from the "jungle" of our cities
to a place where man can sing of life freely. The old convict waits in
the park near the prison in the belief that his son will come to collect
him, but he dreams of the freedom of the prison, buying birds to release
in the belief that they will bring freedom to his old comrades.
One day he is awakened by the sight of the young bird
peddler using a frightening electric light to capture the very birds he
has released. One of the birds escapes the light and flies into the convict's
jacket, The old man feels the bird's warmth against his chest and realizes
that he has to convince the young bird peddler to join him in a father-son
relationship. The young man does not respond, however. The old man has
no choice but to buy a bird and take it into the park to release it. He
finds, however, that the bird's wings have been clipped, making recapturing
that much easier. The old man is overwhelmed with anger and sadness. He
slips the bird inside his jacket and leaves the "cruel city," searching
for the road home, "where the woods on the hill behind the house" are green
even in winter. The evergreen "home" in a warmer southern place that the
man and his bird long for reminds us of the painful memories of the dark
storeroom and women's undergarments harbored by the main character in "Discharge
from the Hospital" or the younger brother's anguish in "The Deformed and
This place, where life can flourish freely, may only
exist in Yi Ch'ong-jun's vision and imagination, but it is not a false
hope. It is realized through Yi's language and life. He has dedicated his
youth and great experience to achieving this human-centered literary world,
deeply rooted in his own humanity.
Yi Ch'ong-jun would not have been able to achieve such
great artistic success with these stories if he had not used his distinctive
"grotesque poetic" or the "story within a story" format. How has the "grotesque
poetic" and the "story within a story" story functioned in Yi's works?
Critics have described the "grotesque" element of Yi's
stories in various ways. Kim Hyon once pointed out the many "eccentrics"
(kiin) who inhabited Yi's writings.He diagnosed this tendency as the result
of a "fundamental insecurity" rooted in the author's childhood and said
that Yi's work needed to be analyzed from a socio-psychiatric point of
view, much like the work done by Erich Fromm and Karen Horney. Critic Kim
Chu-yon has expressed a similar opinion. He links the eccentric presence
in Yi's works to the decline in fortunes of those who do not conform to
our modern times.
The eccentric figures which appear in Yi's "Tightrope,"
"The Target," "The Falconer" and other works are invariably traditional
artisans or performers almost forgotten in modern industrial society.
The traditional artisan is a product of a normative
society organized under a patriarchal order. They do not exist in modern
mass society. They perform very specific tasks-walking wires, shooting
arrows, training falcons to hunt-and most importantly, their life work
and fate are firmly established at birth. These craftsmen never have an
opportunity to choose their own career path. They are trained for their
skill alone, living according to the transcendental values of traditional
society. As such, their world can be called a world of convention and tradition.
So why is Yi Ch'ong-jun so interested in people tied
to out-of-date conventions and customs? Is he fascinated with their mysterious
skills? Or does he pursue them out of a sentimental attachment to the past?
Of course not. This is all too apparent in the fact that Yi does not idealize
or embellish their lives and craft. His stories revolve around the conflict
and discord they face in relationship to our modern society.
But what of the "grotesque poetic" mentioned earlier?
The grotesque is an extremely important aesthetic related to nineteenth
century romantic realism. At the time, it existed on the outskirts of literary
society but was the focus of interest for a few authors and modern critics
studying absurd literature.
In 1827 Victor Hugo said that where the grotesque and
sublime meet in complete union grows a multifaceted and creative modern
spirit. According to Hugo, the grotesque was the essential comic element.
Later Gogol and Dostoevsky also developed theories on the comic phenomena
hidden in the grotesque. Gogol argued that if one took an aloof and emotionless
attitude toward the grotesque, maintaining a fixed distance from it, the
grotesque appeared comic. Dostoevsky was not able to view the grotesque
in this manner, however. He opened the way for existential literature by
being the first in literary history to discuss the absurdity of existence.
In the comic characters of Cervantes, Voltaire, Griboyedov and Gogol, he
discovered pure, emotional tragedy, devoid of sentimental elements. Of
course, as Donald Fanger has pointed out, for Dostoevsky, the grotesque
was essentially the comic frozen in the approach toward its opposite, the
In fact, this is true. Behind the comic face, eyes laughing
to the point of tears, a certain sadness is hidden. This is obvious to
anyone with clear eyes.
When we consider Yi Ch'ong-jun's literature from this
perspective, it is easy to find examples of the grotesque. One example
is the deaf-mute boy Chung-shik in the novella The Falconer. On the surface,
the boy seems silly, gesturing and nodding, but imagine the rage and sadness
hidden within such a figure. And Chung-shik isn't the only one. On the
surface, the circus performers in "Tightrope" and the failed astronomer
in "I'll Show You the Stars" wear grotesque masks but they are heroes in
a tragicomedy in which they are struggling to recover their humanity on
the absurd stage of human life.
In the decisive scenes of each of his major works Yi
Ch'ong-jun reiterates the tragic consequences of the Darwinist existential
form. He seems to be attempting to expand upon and indict the grotesque
phenomena that lie hidden within the absurdity of this existence.
You see! It is the ascent of man. The ascent of man!
Isn't it beautiful? It is a priceless experience that you will only find
with our troupe!
"That night, Un fell to his death." ("Tightrope")
It seemed to him that a hidden target, until then lying
somewhere, suddenly appeared, to be hit by his arrow. At that very moment,
the boy fell on the hillside. His fall was strangely beautiful and for
that very reason seemed all the more horrible. Perhaps the beauty lay in
the successive movements of his fall: first he slowly sank to his knees,
and then pitched forward, head first.
(translated by Kim Chongch'ol, p. 51, Modern Korean
Literature, compiled and edited by Peter H. Lee, University of Hawaii Press,
"When the falcon soars in the sky or swoops down to
the ground, you probably think it's beautiful and uplifting. It is beautiful.
You've probably felt that way too. But I know..."
I prompted him with my eyes.
"I mean, I know what that beauty is. But do you really..."
The falconer glared at me. His eyes held a fiery gleam.
For some peculiar reason, they reminded me of the eyes of an angry falcon.
Still he kept silent, as if aware of the fire in his eyes. And then, "Get
out of here. I can't stand being around you. I've thought of killing you
at times. If you don't get out of here right now, I just might do it."
(The Falconer, Translated by Julie Pickering)
Throughout his work Yi Ch'ong-jun directly and indirectly
utilizes the "story within a story" format and the grotesque poetics discussed
in this article. He maintains a certain objectivity and distance through
a narrator who screens out excessive emotion. In some cases, however, the
narrator becomes involved in the story, as in "Tightrope", contributing
to its moral significance. Yi's use of the "story within a story" novel
format has two basic purposes.
First, while Yi does not use the impressionistic style
we associate with Joseph Conrad, he has used the "story within a story"
format to let his readers objectively "see, hear and feel" the tragic and
trivial nature of life. Second, through the narrator in the "story within
a story" format, Yi maintains objectivity, unity within the work and an
even tone throughout, more effectively delivering his "vision" or "prophesy"
to the reader. The Falconer is the most successful example of this. In
it, he achieves great artistic effect by effortlessly unifying the vision
and prophesies of the primary narrator's friend Min T'ae-jun with his own
and the realities of the future.
Yi Ch'ong-jun is a unique modern Korean author for his
themes and literary aesthetic. However, before we label him a "modern Korean
author," perhaps because he has had to carry on the Korean literary tradition,
we have found in his works modern man's attempts to explore the fundamental
significance of the "traditional nature" of the Korean novel, centered
around the enlightenment mentioned by Chong Myong-hwan, and the absurdity
of the human condition.
It has been said: "The novel is a moral question." However,
if morality is superficially emphasized, we run the risk of creating a
"documentary" of trite and stale customs or shallow rules for action, rather
than enhancing our understanding of the universal core of human life. Wherever
possible, Yi Ch'ong-jun has used the power of his imagination to "investigate
the mysteries of life." I hope he will continue because this act-the investigation
of life's mysteries-is not an act of personal indulgence or escapism. It
is, as Thomas Mann pointed out, a confirmation of the potential for human
development. Many people may ask what moral value is there in artistic
beauty invisible to the human eye and achieved through "fantasy" and imagination
alone, but the world of artistic beauty, while born of chaos, is a world
of new creativity which contributes to the development of the order in
which we live. Yi Ch'ong-jun's stories, particularly "The Deformed and
the Idiot," "Tightrope", The Falconer, Iodo and This Paradise of Yours
indirectly prove the success of Yi's approach.
Translated by Julie Pickering