The Poet by Yi Mun-Yol

When I ran across a very positive review for Yi Mun-yol’s novel The Poet over at Korean Literature in Translation, I was really excited to check the book out. It’s a novel about a poet who went by the handle Kim Sakkat–“Rain-Hat” Kim, the grandson of a rebel-leader who suffered social censure (and, almost, the execution of his whole family, in retribution for the granddad’s “crime”). The grandson becomes a poet, and then a wanderer, and arguably the first proto-rapper or beat poet in Korea… and the novel purports to explore his life story.

Sound great, right? Unfortunately, I found The Poet to be really drab, unengaging, and not really recommendable. I’m actually a little baffled the book could get a positive review from anyone, much less described have its writing style described as “clever”… personally, I feel like a novel of this sort–at least, the translated text I read–could only get a positive review when the bar is lowered. Unlike a fair number of Korean books I have passed on to friends abroad, it’s not a book I would ever recommend to anyone, because, unless one is particularly interested (and invested) in Korean literature, I don’t think it’s going to hold interests, or even grab it in the first place. It may hold value as an example of Korean fiction by a major Korean author, and perhaps your mileage may vary, but as a novel, in the global marketplace of novels, it’s sadly not a contender for anything on my 2014 list except maybe Most Unengaging Text.


Of course, I should note that I’m not sure whether the problem is with Yi Mun-Yol’s original text, or the translation by Chong-Wha Chung and Brother Anthony of Taizé. It could be that the language is more crisp in the original, or simply that the text inevitably lost something in translation. Either way, though, Kim Sakkat was less-than-satisfyingly rendered as a character: most of the way through, he is held at arm’s length, and the narrator of the novel often speculates directly on Kim’s state of mind, rather than simply writing the story assuming it. There is, of course, some value in being aware of the dangerous of historical fiction, but there are other ways around that than holding the character at a distance, and constantly breaking the narrative momentum to vociferously speculate about it.

I can’t help but think, though, that Kim is a shadowy, ambiguous figure here because of Yi’s desire to use him allegorically. There seems to be an overt political reason why Yi was attracted to the story, after all: like Kim, Yi was socially ostracized for political reasons when his father sided with North Korea during the Korean war, and defected to the North. This introduces the sense that Kim is a sort of proto-Yi, or, well, a crucible for Yi’s own reflections, though he realizes that carrying that sort of thing too far isn’t really fair to Kim. So, out come the kid gloves, the speculations, the distancing, and rather than giving Kim an air of mystery, he ends up being a boring stick figure in the distance.

Then there’s the unremitting negativity. Kim, like so many Korean literary characters, is sad, because horrible things have happened to him… but also because, nothing he does will ever make anything better. This is a fundamentally common meme in Korean society, and in Korean literature, and I contend that it’s impossible to tell a story that really engages people if this is taken to heart. Kim basically gets screwed over as a child, and wanders around, at first hoping to regain the lost social status his family once held through writing poems. When the aristocrats figure out who he is, and reject him, he refashions himself as a “people’s poet.” (Mostly, we have to take Yi’s word on that, as the poetry samples don’t get any more interesting at this stage.) When the masses lose interest, he moves on.

This is the most interesting bit of the book: there is a glimmering, at the end because Kim ends up hanging out with some valley bandits–people who, like him, are social outcasts, victim, the losers of society. They’re also kind of radical revolutionaries. One wishes that Yi would explore the obvious attraction Kim probably felt: these people were engaged in the same “crime” his grandfather committed, against an unjust society that unjustly punished him; is it too much to imagine Kim fantasized joining up and going all Reservoir Dogs on the powers that be? Or, you know, started composing poems that reflected a change of heart, or his struggle with fear, or something?

Instead, Yi has the poet bumble his way through a conversation with the bandits, in which they score a bunch of intellectual points against Confucianism and the extant power structure of the Joseon Dynasty, while Yi basically just warns them that Confucius and Mencius really are good, that society is the way it must be, that trying to fight before everyone in society is wakened (when has that ever happened?) is dangerous and ill-advised. That is: Yi unthinkingly reiterates the ideology of the status quo that screwed him all his life. The character who ought to be most invested in embracing that, advises against it… after a lifetime having a chainsaw shoved up his backside by that status quo, he defends it as inviolable, or at least, inviolable for the present. It makes no sense… unless you’ve internalized a meme where personal action is hopeless, one’s fate is inescapable, and the best one can do is find a way to get by…

Which is pesky meme one sees in a lot of Korean fiction, unfortunately. Not the stuff of great fiction, unfortunately, and if you think that’s culturally insensitive to say, then, fine, let me qualify that: it’s not the stuff of great fiction for a reader from a culture that values and privileges human agency–the ability to choose and decide to do something, however limited by social circumstances or power differentials. I really do wish Korean fiction had more of that–or, perhaps, that the Korean fiction that does have more of it ended up getting translated. With each novel or story I read that involves glum protagonists resigning themselves to unremitting misery, I grow increasingly more impatient. 

(And, doubtless, there are real-world political and social implications for the meme. I’ve written about the real-life issue of Korean college students and their poor acquaintance with agency in an article on RPGs and their uses in education, published this book of essays compiled for WyrdCon 2012.)

It doesn’t help that the poetry in the translation really, truly fails to sparkle. I mean, it’s drab. The selections from Kim’s actual poetical oeuvre maybe read impressively in the original Korean, but they were dull and unimpressive to my ear. I should note: I’m someone who reads, writes, and occasionally publishes poetry: I enjoy and value poetry. But the stuff in this novel does nothing to explain why Kim Sakkat is such a popular figure… nor does the story that Yi tells. I found I had to force myself not to skip the poetical snippets here, and there were, besides, surprisingly few of them.

There is, of course, a brief section at the end that was cool–a bit of magical realism or fantasy, where Kim Sakkat and his son are walking through the woods and the father begins to mumble bits of verse. His son can’t seem to figure out whether his father’s poetical utterances are actually changing the world, or simply altering his perceptions of his surroundings. That’s an interesting thought about the magic of poetry, of poetical utterances: whether it changes the world, or just your perceptions, poetry has a transformative power. It’s a very cool little idea, and worthy of a short story, and I suppose I’m glad I made the slog through the book to that point. But to be honest, I very nearly abandoned the novel several times, and the neat stuff at the end was barely worth it… I would have preferred to read a novel that explored this more intruiging, semi-magical nature-poet Kim Sakkat, and whatever wanderings and actual adventures could have followed, and served up the most relevant bits of the preceding in flashbacks that actually fleshed him out as a character.  I cared little for the parts of his life where he pathetically licked the asses of yangban “Gentleman scholars”, or composed rappy platitudes for the public, or hung out with rebels while trying to talk them out of rebellion. Only the last stage in Kim’s life really held any interest or mystery for me, to be frank.

Of course, I’m also sure that, if I wanted to–and had enough investment in finding value in it, I could find all kinds of intellectual arguments to justify most of the aspects of the text I have criticized above. But I’m not that invested in it: coming to it as a novel in a world full of novels, in which Korean books and Japanese books and American and Canadian and Indian and French books  and all the rest compete on an equal footing, I can say: your time is better, more pleasantly spent elsewhere, with one of hundreds of other novels. This one, at least in the English version, is likely to disappoint anyone who doesn’t come to it already convinced it is a text of value. 

Of course, I suppose I should have known better than to expect much: Yi’s Our Twisted Hero was a book I found similarly dry, though less boring overall. (I discussed it here.) Maybe I would have enjoyed Tae Hung Ha’s The Life of a Rainhat Poet better–it apparently looks into the sordid side of Kim’s life story a little more, and probably is less freighted by an authorial attempt to allegorize his own political sufferings. But I can say that, personally, there are other mainstream Koreans authors with whose translated works I’d much rather spend my time with… Kim Young-ha being one, off the top of my head, though since my copy of Your Republic is Calling You isn’t handy now, my next Korean read will probably be Yom Sang-Seop’s Three Generations, a book I have had in hardback for years and always wanted to read. 

Note: the book did trigger some thoughts that are useful and interesting–mostly musings that take off from the question of how to do Korean historical fiction in a way that is both entertaining and true to the (miserable) historical realities. That is, how to do Korean historical fiction in a more interesting and appealing way than Yi Mun-Yol managed in The Poet. But those thoughts are not really pertinent to this post, and I’ll save them for a separate piece, one I’ll add to the site tomorrow.

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