‘Scenes from the Enlightenment’ by Kim Namcheon (Review)

IMG_5467A couple of years back now, I made my way through a collection of free Korean stories made available in electronic form by LTI Korea, even going so far as to put out some short Vlogs on the series.  While there were a few weak ones (and in some cases the translations weren’t all they might have been…), I found some excellent pieces, and two of the better ones (‘Management‘ and ‘After Beating Your Wife’) were by Kim Namcheon.  All of which I had forgotten until I picked up today’s book, where I got to sample Kim’s work in a longer form – and a very good read it was too 🙂

Scenes from the Enlightenment (translated by Charles La Shure, review copy courtesy of Australian distributor Footprint Books) is another of the books from Dalkey Archive’s Library of Korean Literature, the penultimate unread title in my possession.  Written in 1939, the novel is set almost thirty years earlier and tells the story of a wealthy family living in a small village near Pyeongyang.  Bak Seonggwon is a relative newcomer to the village, but his hard work and skill in business has enabled him to carve out a loftier position for his family than expected, and Assistant Curator Bak (as he is soon called) is able to lead a fairly comfortable life.

However, much of the novel focuses not on Bak, but on his sons, and their relationships with women and each other.  The eldest son, Hyeongjun, is married with children, but with his father still in the prime of life, there’s nothing much for him to do.  Hyeongseon, the next son, is about to get married, and he just hopes his wife (when he eventually gets to see her) is attractive.  Perhaps the main character of the novel, though, is the next oldest, Hyeonggeol.  His marital affairs won’t be organised quite as easily – being the son of Bak senior’s concubine, he’s not quite as enticing a catch as his half-brothers, even in a society where money is starting to replace family as the main source of prestige.

If this all sounds a little like Victorian literature in the Korean countryside, you wouldn’t be far wrong.  The sub-title for this English translation is ‘A Novel of Manners’, and despite the foreign customs, clothes and rituals, at times you could almost imagine yourself in Wessex or Barchester, particularly when the Bak boys are making their visits in the neighbourhood.  Like any good Trollope novel, marriage is at the heart of the story, with the Assistant Curator keen to get his sons settled down appropriately, albeit at a much tenderer age than Anglophone readers might be used to.

Some of the writing is reminiscent of Victorian literature too, and La Shure does an excellent job of bringing across the unhurried tone and calm description of Kim’s corner of the Korean peninsula:

One warm day, late in the waning afternoon, while the green buds of the poplar trees were sprouting into light-green leaves, the grass below was pushing forth soft green shoots, and a single cluster of azaleas, which someone had secretly planted there, was blooming with pink blossoms, a lone white horse galloped out of Visiting Immortal Gate with a thunder of hooves, circled the field of Soujeon once, leaned toward the earth as it twisted through the poplar-lined path that led to the newly built road, and then galloped off toward Fealty Bridge, leaving a fine white dust in its wake.
pp.81/2 (Dalkey Archive Press, 2014)

It’s a scene that could come straight from Hardy, with the writer taking a panoramic view of the countryside at the start of his chapter, before gradually focusing on the people whose actions he is to describe.

Where Scenes from the Enlightenment is rather different, though, is in the way that despite being a continuous story loosely based around the central Pak family, it is exactly what it says on the cover, a series of scenes.  Part of the enjoyment of reading the book comes from the descriptions of a time and culture which has receded into the past (almost as much for the original Korean reader of the late 1930s as for their 21st-century Anglophone counterpart), and there is a sense that the plot supports these descriptions rather than the other way round.  From the solemn wedding ceremony near the start of the novel (where the bride and groom only see each other when it’s time to enter the marital bed…) to the scenes at school, with the young men running around with long hair tied up in braids, Kim paints a vivid picture of the life of the time.

However, one of the main purposes of Scenes from the Enlightenment is to take snapshots of a time when all of this was set to change, with much of it soon to be condemned to the past.  The choice of the time was deliberate, and as the novel progresses, the writer introduces more and more changes, intrusions from beyond what used to be called ‘the hermit kingdom’.  When one of the men officiating at Hyeongseon’s wedding appears with a western-style cap and leather shoes, the locals can hardly suppress their giggles, but other western products which gradually make their way into the village, such as a bicycle and kerosene lamps, open their eyes to the advantages of modern living.

Progress is also made in cultural areas, with a new school promoting enlightened thought, which for many of the students (including the highly independent Hyeonggeol) involves cutting off their annoying braids, a symbol of emancipation if ever there was one.  There is also the gradual spread of Christianity which, while mentioned early in the novel, gradually takes on more prominence towards the end of the book – even if the actual practice of the religion doesn’t really resemble what we would recognise:

They attended a Christian school, so they listened to the Scriptures being read as one might listen to old proverbs, and they sang hymns as one might learn simple songs.  The stories told by shamans and the prayers offered by priests or pastors, they were all the same, just playthings to be mimicked for a joke and a laugh. (p.165)

Still, the new faith definitely has its adherents, and Hyeongseon’s subtle encouragement to his wife to gradually reveal more of her beliefs shows that Christianity is on the rise even in these far-flung provinces.

Of course, progress only goes so far, and at a rather slow pace, and in terms of the place of women in Korean society, not much happens in the novel to promote equality.  Several of the scenes concern relationships, albeit mostly unrequited loves which have never been made public.  Hyeongseon’s wife Bobu is disappointed when she sees her husband’s face for the first time, having hoped that it would be Hyeonggeol who would enter her room on her wedding night.  Hyeonggeol himself is determined to avoid an arranged marriage, wanting to make his own decisions, with much of his affection turned towards the Gisaeng Buyong, a newcomer to the village.

However, the character who suffers most from her lowly position in a semi-feudal society is the beautiful Ssangne, a girl the Assistant Curator ‘bought’ from her destitute father.  After being ordered to marry another of Pak’s servants (an older, rather unattractive man), she is then the object of affection of not one, but two of the sons of the house.  With absolutely no choice in the matter, she begins to wonder how on earth she’s going to continue her life under the Assistant Curator’s roof.

If this were a Victorian novel, we’d have a pretty good idea how things would turn out.  With Hardy, there would no doubt be a tragedy just around the corner (I’d put good money on a drowning…), while Trollope would manage to smooth these little issues over just in time to round off his two volumes.  However, this is not V-Lit, and if you’re expecting everything to be nicely resolved, you’ll be slightly disappointed – but you shouldn’t be.

Scenes from the Enlightenment does what it does extremely well, and even if there is a little repetition at times (due, I’m sure to the original and not to La Shure, who has created an excellent English version of the novel), Kim’s work is one I’d recommend to those interested in Korean culture, or anyone who enjoys historical fiction of the gentler kind.  This is another book lost amongst the homogeneous covers of the Library of Korean Literature series – even so, I hope some readers will take the plunge as it is a most enjoyable read 🙂


2 thoughts on “‘Scenes from the Enlightenment’ by Kim Namcheon (Review)

  1. I just recently found my way to Korean literature with The Vegetarian. I’m looking for more. Between what I’ve read and what I’ve found here it really looks like a place that might be the new “it” place.


    1. James – I’m not sure K-Lit is ever going to break out as much as its supporters would like it to, but I’ve certainly enjoyed my time getting to know the literature and culture better over the past couple of years 🙂


Every comment left on my blog helps a fairy find its wings, so please be generous - do it for the fairies.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.