‘The Poet’ by Yi Mun-yol (Review)

IMG_5201While I’ve got a few outstanding reviews to write (and a bit of rereading to get to), most of my IFFP duties are now done and dusted, which means I’ve got time to get back to other reading – and a huge pile of books waiting…  However, before I dive into the ARCs, there are a couple of library books which have priority.   One’s a book most of you will have heard about (and more about that soon).  Today’s choice, though, sees me returning to my Korean literature project, with a writer you should all try.  Let’s go for a little walk…

Yi Mun-yol’s The Poet (translated by Chong-wha Chung and Brother Anthony of Taizé) is a short novel looking at the life of nineteenth-century wandering poet Kim Sakkat, a work in which the writer explores Kim’s origins and attempts to work out the truth behind the myths.  It’s a blend of fact and fiction, based on a real-life character, an excellent look at what drives those who devote their lives to art and the pressures faced in a society founded on obedience to family and country.

The story begins when the four-year-old Kim Pyong-yon becomes aware of unrest in his family home.  Soon, his father addresses him and his elder brother, revealing some surprising news:

“Do you understand?  Your father is Kim Song-su of Koksan district in Hwanghae Province.  You’ve been visiting your mother’s family in Yongin and now you’re on your way back home with your uncle, you’re going to celebrate the New Year there.  In future, you must never regard your father’s or grandfather’s name as your own.”
p.5 (The Harvill Press, 1995)

The two poor boys are sent off with a loyal retainer to spend years with another of the father’s former servants, and it’s only later that Pyong-yon learns why they’ve been sent away.  Their grandfather, an army general, had been executed for treason for aiding a rebellion in the far north of the country, and in a society where treason is punished to the third generation, the boys are in mortal danger.

Later, the danger recedes, and the family are able to be reunited, but even if the law has forgiven them, the people haven’t.  As ‘traitor’s descendants’, the brothers are unable to regain their rightful place in society, and while the elder brother turns to alcohol and violence, Pyong-yon tries his best to rise through education.  However, it’s a plan doomed to failure, and the start of his poetic career is the first step on the road to a life of wandering and solitude…

I read several pieces by Yi Mun-yol last year, including some novellas and short stories, and he rarely disappoints, so I was looking forward to this one immensely.  It may not sound enticing to many, being a dry retelling of the life of an unknown (to most people) poet; however, it’s actually an intriguing tale, a story which focuses just as much on the causes of Kim’s actions as the actions themselves.  We follow the young boy as he grows up, experiencing his successes and failures, watching him develop through various stages until the very end of his life.

The key to his development is his struggle with the past, in particular, the unfair burden placed upon him by his treacherous grandfather.  The problem is that in a society where all citizens are called upon to display blind devotion to both family and state, choosing between the two is frankly impossible.  This comes to a head in the first major historical turning point of the tale, when the nineteen-year-old Pyong-yon wins a poetry competition with a piece condemning the actions of his grandfather.  It’s only later that he realises that far from redeeming himself in the eyes of the ruling classes, he’s actually offended against Korean sensibilities – you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t…

Once he realises that redemption is impossible, the road to poetry is open, and the catalyst for his eventual success is a meeting with a man in a distant mountain region, the ‘old drunkard’.  The old man has a poetic nature himself, and he becomes animated as he attempts to make Kim understand what poetry is really about:

“True poetry stands solely by its own worth.  It doesn’t have to grovel before the powerful, it has no need to be cowed in the presence of learning.  It doesn’t have to keep one eye on the feelings of the rich, it has no need to fear the hatred of the deprived.  It is not to be measured with the yardstick of what is right, or weighed only on the scales of what is true.  It is self-contained and self-sufficient.” (p.116)

The younger man, at this time, has not yet developed enough to be able to grasp his companion’s reasoning, but the day will come when he too will understand what poetry really entails.

What makes The Poet such an enjoyable read, apart from its languid pace and its sporadic dips into Kim’s poetry, is the way in which Yi tells us the story.  At times, he seems to be less of a novelist than a historian, a biographer sifting through historical evidence to careful determine what really happened.  The beauty of this approach is that there are many gaps in the story, and the writer is forced to guess what happened, as tentatively as possible:

“On careful inspection, it rather seems that even his deviation was not initially something permanent.  The conjecture that it might have been of limited duration, with room for a later return, is rendered tenable by the fact that after he left home, the first place he visited was the Diamond Mountains, famous for their scenic beauty.  There was the feeling that he was leaving the dust-shrouded world behind him for a time; there was evidently also the idea that once the wounds of his heart had been healed by attaining affinity with nature, he would return and start something new.” (p.106)

It’s a credit to the translators that this approach appears natural in context; I suspect that the combination of a Korean native and an English-speaking poetry lover made for a perfect translation team here 🙂

Returning to the writer, though, there’s more to The Poet than most Anglophones would realise.  The story starts, as mentioned above, with Kim’s family troubles, and this is a topic close to the writer’s heart.  You see, Yi Mun-yol’s father was a defector to the North, and that meant that the rest of the family stood under suspicion.  It’s a theme the writer wrote about in his novella An Appointment with His Brother, and this story approaches the same topic, albeit in a rather more oblique manner.  For those who know this, the story has that extra angle, with implicit criticism of the heavy-handed South Korean government and their attitude towards people like Yi.  In fact, as the story progresses, the poet’s attitude towards his grandfather changes; the more he learns about the events of the rebellion, the less he’s sure of his ancestor’s guilt…

Poetry, history, excellent writing and a great introduction by the translators (to be read, of course, after the book!) – this is a novel I’d highly recommend, especially if you have an interest in Korea and its literature.  In the end, though, it all comes back to poetry, and the poet himself.  The book is working towards an end, one described best in the introduction:

“The poetic vocation leads in the end to fullness in solitude; no audience and no words are needed, the poet is himself his poem.” (p.xii)

An interesting idea – but I enjoyed the words, anyway 😉


9 thoughts on “‘The Poet’ by Yi Mun-yol (Review)

    1. Gary – Funnily enough, that was actually on my page of notes, one of the comments not to make it into the final post 😉


  1. I’m really underread when it comes to Korean literature but this sounds like a very good place to start. What other novel would recommend to a newbie?


    1. Caroline – This is a good one for those who like slow, well-written books, but I doubt it’d be a great introduction for most people. Some of the Dalkey series provide a nice entry (e.g. Jang Eun-jin’s ‘Nobody Writes Back’ or Park Min-gyu’s ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’), and I enjoyed Shin Kyung-sook’s latest in English, ‘I’ll Be Right There’ (though I *loathed* ‘Please Look After Mother’…). Of course, Han Kang’s ‘The Vegetarian’ is the latest big thing, and that’s definitely worth a try too 🙂


  2. I enjoyed this, but I found the prose a bit dry; I didn’t get the impression that the translation made a huge difference here. As you say, Yi in this book often seems more of a non-fiction writer than a novelist, and I appreciated The Poet more as an interesting, straightforward work of historical biography than as a literary piece. Some of Yi’s reflections on poetry and society struck me as a bit naive and shallow; unfortunately, I can’t give any examples as I no longer have my copy. I wasn’t aware that the author’s father was a defector; interesting – though I’m not sure knowing it would have deepened my enjoyment in reading the book.

    Incidentally, I linked your review of Hyun Ki-young’s One Spoon on This Earth in my own review of the same book.


    1. Mimic Hootings – Dry, but effective, and deliberately so, which in the world of K-Lit translations (at least of those done in previous decades) is an achievement in itself. I’ll agree to disagree here ; this is one I thoroughly enjoyed 🙂

      I’m glad to see I’m not alone in my thoughts on ‘One Spoon on this Earth’ – I honestly could have written a blog post just listing the bad sentences in that translation… Luckily, a new crop of translators is coming through to join people like the Fultons, so the future is looking brighter. Hopefully, the idea that Korean books *have* to be translated by Koreans (as outsiders are unable to get the cultural nuances…) is a thing of the past.


    1. Mimic Hootings – That’s not an area we’re likely to see much of – modern K-Lit only started around 1917, and I’m not sure there’s a huge interest in pre-modern writing…


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