Lee Jeong-jun. The Prophet and Other Stories. Translated by Julie Pickering. Ithaca, New York: East Asia Program, Cornell University, 1999.
"A fine writer, one who has the vision to perceive the very essence of things has to a certain extent the ability to predict the future." So argues the narrator of "The Falconer", the first story included in this collection by Lee Jeong-jun. It is a theme repeated throughout many of the stories gathered here and a theme which encapsulates the faith Lee Jeong-jun places in the project of literature. Indeed he entrusts even the future to the prophetic powers of his art. This faith is not entirely unproblematic, but it does make for memorable stories which sometimes depict a fragile hometown and lingering folklore, and at other times probe authoritarian power structures and the nature of alienation in the modern city. Such issues first arose in Korean literature with the beginning of urbanisation in the 1930s, and became more urgent in the 1970s and 1980s, as rapid industrialisation and the dominant ideology of development encroached upon more and more lives. Lee Jeoong-jun has been a major voice in the articulation of discontent with this process. Now with this first collection of Lee Jeong-jun's stories to appear in English translation, the English-reading world too can appreciate Lee's literary achievements and ponder the questions they pose the reader, questions which are by no means peripheral but rather central to the study of modern Korean literature. The depth of emotion evoked by the term hometown is unique to societies which have urbanised so rapidly that major portions of the urban population either grew up in or still feel a close affinity to the countryside. For writers who have first sought education and then forged their careers in the city this move is not a simple spatial move from the country to the city, but, amongst other things, a class move which secures their permanent removal from the social space of their childhood. Hence the multiplicity of meanings the hometown takes on in literature. Lee Jeong-jun's story "Footprints in the Snow" [Nun-gil, 1977] captures the ambivalent feelings of the main character towards his past in a poignant portrayal of a brief trip home. As the translator, Julie Pickering, explains in her introduction, this is a classic example of kwihyang, or "returning home," fiction. That the hometown has to be returned to is already witness to the fact that it has been left behind, and can now only be accessed as an imaginary/fictional construct. Yi avoids the pitfall of romanticisation, instead suggesting the complexity of the emotions invested in this home. For this return means far more than revisiting an aging mother, it means facing up to the memories of her past devotion to her son, and reliving the shame of his memory of their poverty. The desperation to escape poverty is a desperation which must be understood in all its urgency in the context of the prevailing obsession with development and is evoked in this simple tale of a mother and son alongside everything that must be repressed in the search to escape poverty's grip. Finally, with the stunning image of the mother walking home besides her son's empty footprints in the snow Lee captures the emptiness of those left behind in this movement towards the city and towards "progress."Reading these stories one can not help but feel that Yi Jeong-jun's strength, and occasionally also his weakness, is his careful structuring of each story, most characteristically within a frame story. In "Footprints in the Snow" this subtly achieves the effect of drawing the reader into the story making s/he identify with the main character and join with him in listening to his mother tell her story of their past. In the earlier story "The Falconer" [Maejabi, 1968] the frame Yi sets up seems much more laboured: the narrator follows his friend's field notes and includes an earlier story he has written in the middle of this story. However, "The Falconer" does serve the purpose of highlighting several of Lee Jeong-jun's constant themes, one of which is the search for the subject of literature in folklore. This is the story of a vill
age falconer who continues to try to live according to older, communitarian customs only to find himself ridiculed and misunderstood by the other villagers. Similar to writers such as Kim Tongni in the late 1930s, Lee turns to folklore to try to locate a world outside of modern industrial society, where communal values and customs still prevail. Here too Lee retains an ambivalence, presenting not a perfectly recuperated past time in the present, but rather a world that is fragile and disappearing. The falconer remains true to his ways, but can only do so by killing himself. He thus reaffirms his world of meaning in death.
The focus in "The Falconer" is equally on the framing story, that of the narrator friend who collects notes on folklore and leaves behind at his death a story which has managed to foretell the future death of the falconer. It is here that the explicit connection between writing and telling the future is drawn. It is appropriate then that the next story in the collection is called "The Prophet" [Yeonja, 1977]. This tells the story of a writer who stops writing because all his stories come true, but who can not, however, stop his prophecies. The prophet is the only customer at the Queen Bee tavern who understands the totalitarian nature of the regime set up by the new proprietress, and foretells the murder she will arrange to confirm her absolute power. However, just as for all his previous prophecies, the prophet offers no prescription to avoid this fate, indeed he ultimately offers his own life to fulfill the prophecy. The message is clear, totalitarianism may prevail but only at the cost of recognising its subservience to a deeper truth, here in the proprietress' acceptance of the prophecy. It is in that truth that the power of literature is located, but at the cost of the death of the prophet. Yi offers a form of redemption, but a redemption that is again attained through death. The same combination of future salvation through death and through the medium of art is offered in "Time's Gate" [Siganui mun, 1982]. This story reveals most clearly Lee's aesthetic politics. A photographer struggles to overcome the distance between his photos and life in order to find a path to future time. He manages this finally not through the photographs he takes but through a picture taken of him as he rows into the distance to join a stranded refugee boat and certain death. In other words, art can never come alive, rather life has to become art in order to find a redemptive future. The irony of course is that for life to become art there has to be death. Even if we take this as a metaphorical death we still have to deal with the passivity of the photographer who accepts, rather than protests, the helpless fate of the refugees and chooses to join them in their fate. We also have to note the very individual nature of this redemption, in which the photographer's wife and friends can have no part. This is the personal redemption in the face of industrial society of which the translator speaks in her introduction. There is an attempt to turn this personal redemption into a kind of communal redemption in the final story, "The Fire Worshipers" [Pihwa milgyo, 1985]. Each New Year's Eve a ritual takes place in which all the town-dwellers can seek communal forgiveness. Across the years collaborators with the Japanese colonisers and, more recently, secret police involved in suppressing democratic protest have mingled safely for one evening with the communities from whom they are normally isolated. It is a utopian vision, but it is not hard to see why it attracted criticism in the mid-eighties when political protest was at a high; once again there is no prescription for change, and here the author goes as far as to criticise those who rush for change rather than respect the importance of a deeper spiritual truth. It is that truth which is intimately related to literature:
"Revealing the truth isn't the only way to write a novel. Can't a novel provide a hint-can't it allude to the truth, instead of depicting it outright? Can't it show there may be a greater force that we haven't yet perceived, like spring water that seeps slowly but surely into the depths of the earth?"*
In their haunting fashion Lee Jeong-jun's stories strive to reveal this spring water, but it is a spring which only comes into view in the face of a radically individualising death. Under increasingly difficult circumstances literature offers the way to this redemptive death. In one way though, perhaps Yi is more true to the nature of literature than other writers with less fatalistic visions, for in contrast to the claim on the back cover that Lee's characters are "ordinary people," they are predominantly artists and writers, and what could be more individualising than the solitary work of the writer? In this ideological claim for the supremacy of literature Lee Jeong-jun is representative of a major stream in Korean literature. As such the appearance of this translated volume is a significant event. Anthologies by single authors have only rarely appeared in English-Hwang Sun-won and Yun Hu nggil are the two that come to mind-and it is refreshing to be offered a sampling which enables some understanding of an author's literary world, which would be unattainable from any one representative work. The mostly smooth translation bears witness to the continually rising standard of translations from Korean into English, and the brief introduction is helpful, providing the Korean titles and publication dates of each story. Lee Jeong-jun is a prolific author, so that those who are already familiar with his work will inevitably question the choice of these stories, and especially the omission of other famous yet untranslated works, such as " Pyeongsinkwa mojori," which deal with more specific historical trauma. What we are offered though enables us to discuss Lee's literary philosophy, and so the appearance of this work is most welcome to the growing number of English-readers interested in Korean literature.
Janet PooleColumbia University