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Kim Yeon-su, a novelist who aspires to do something new

“Would you introduce yourself for the readers of KOREA?” Your reporter immediately poses a blunt question to the novelist, Kim Yeon-su. He looks fazed for a moment, but soon starts relating his story with composure, saying, “I want to be a novelist who continues to write what he wants to write and in the course of doing so produces increasingly better works.”

He is the kind of novelist who displays strong determination to venture down “un-trodden paths.” He cannot bear anything trite—whether it be the form or content of a story. When he was in his 30s, he decided to do something considered very offbeat and write novels that other people could not read. Doing so, he assumed, would make it easier for him to write novels in his 40s.

“I’m in my 40s, but still cannot write a novel that is easy and fun. If a novel is fun to read, it has a powerful story,” Kim says. “I used to ignore stories on purpose, but focus on words, expressions, and depictions.”

He now has his own definition of the novel and, therefore, knows better with every passing day what kind of novels he can write.

As a poet once quipped, novelist Yeon-su Kim is a major figure in Korean literature today. This novelist has fascinated readers with his versatile narratives and elegant style. As a poet once quipped, novelist Yeon-su Kim is a major figure in Korean literature today. This novelist has fascinated readers with his versatile narratives and elegant style.

Kim Yeon-su made his literary debut in 1993. His poem was published by the publisher Segyesa in the summer issue of the seasonal literary magazine Jakga Segye (lit. Writers’ World). The following year, he put forth a novel entitled Gamyeon-eul Gariki-myeo Geotgi (Larvatus Prodeo). He worked at an office by day and translated by night for 15 years, and he invested all his earnings into writing novels.

In order to share his joy from the excruciating time of patient creation, you need to first understand how he completes a novel.

“Writing a novel is unlike writing an interview or an essay; when you produce a draft, you have to create the lives of your protagonists out of nothing using your imagination, and then you have to live their lives in your imagination. For this reason, drafting is the most unbearable, painful part of the process. I realized that this process was comparable to dictating an audio interview only ten years after I’d started writing my first novel. Only after that is a real novel created.”

According to Kim, the novelist’s job is to edit the draft. Once a story is established, he revises it over and over again and refuses to leave home until he is finished. In his epilogue to Seumu Sal (lit. Being 20), a collection of his short stories published in 2000, Kim wrote the following when he was feeling dispirited while thinking of the great French novelist, Patrick Modiano, who does not allow the publication of different versions of his novels:
‘Immediately before leaving for Italy like a runaway, Goethe wrote to Charlotte von Stein, his lover:“I am revising my Werther and find that the writer was wrong in not shooting himself when he had finished writing it.” [English translation from Goethe and Anna Amalia: a forbidden love? by Ettore Ghibellino and Daniel J. Farrelly; p. 166] Thanks to Goethe, my heart, which had been weighing heavily with thoughts of Modiano, could finally find comfort.’ When he stops revising a novel, it isn’t because he is satisfied with it, but because he feels that there is nothing left he can do.

Kim does not use the present tense and tells his stories in the first person. He believes that the beauty of narratives reveals itself only after the entire story of a novel is told, but is seldom found when it is being told. Since the stories of his novels are recounted in retrospect, he describes his novels as love stories. The beauty of a novel is that it covers a long period of time, so if we write it in retrospect of what happened in the past, every sentence without exception becomes beautiful.

He also has a clear idea of narrative modes. A third-person omniscient narrator may use irony, but he by nature does not like irony very much.

“It’s like sifting out failures from successes. Since it is a perspective of history, I don’t buy it. It is a perspective of violence like those of autobiographies of successful people.”

He categorically states that there is no possibility that he will write a novel with a third-person omniscient narrator, which makes human efforts seem in vain.

Unattainable goals of shared understanding and communication

Each protagonist is put into different circumstances, but Kim Yeon-su invariably talks about mutual understanding and communication. One of the nine stories of his novel collection Segye-ui Kkeut, Yeoja Chingu (This title is known to be a Korean translation of the Japanese band World’s End Girlfriend.) is “Keikei-ui Ireum-eul Bulleo Bwaseo” (lit. “I Called the Name K.K.”), in which “I” go to the motherland of “my” deceased lover and say to Happy, “I hired you as my translator, but you don’t understand anything I say at all.” Here, you can see two people who sit tête-à-tête, chatting, but do not understand each other, who talk with each other but fail to communicate. Thus they are dissatisfied, feeling empty and hungry.

“I have a pessimistic view of the possibility of mutual understanding. I recently ordered a bookshelf to accommodate old and new editions of books which are different sizes, but what arrived was not at all what I’d expected. I had to make several attempts to communicate precisely to the retailer what I wanted. It was about something tangible and visible. Then, what likely happens in communication about something abstract? Shared understanding is almost impossible. However, feelings seem to be shared: for instance, the emotional pains my daughter goes through. I think I understand them because I have gone through the same stages of life she’s gone through. However, it is still difficult for me to understand my father. That’s why we need to talk.”

Kim says that the matter is not about character, but conversation, so there’s no need to be angry or surprised. What is needed is conversation. When he sees people who are anxious due to issues of understanding and communication, he suspects loneliness is at the root of the problem.

In the novel Wonder Boy, which came out last February, the author again raised the issue of understanding by means of the supernatural power of the protagonist. The story goes like this: Jeong Hun, 15, is in a car accident with his father in 1984 and gains the ability to read other people’s minds. His power is used to identify North Korean spies or filter out innocent suspects in criminal cases, but this ability disappears the moment he falls in love.

True understanding about somebody cannot be attained simply by reading his or her mind, but starts with efforts to share his or her sorrows and pains.

  In the novel Wonder Boy, the author raised the issue of understanding by means of the supernatural power of the protagonist.In the novel Wonder Boy, the author raised the issue of understanding by means of the supernatural power of the protagonist.

Representative works

Foreign readers will soon have opportunities to read Kim Yeon-su’s novels. Many of his works are being translated into different languages. For example, Ne-ga Nugu-deun, Eolmana Oeropdeun (Whoever You are, No matter how lonely you are) is being translated into Japanese, Chinese, and Russian, while Saranghae, Seonnyeong-a (lit. I Love You, Seonnyeong) into French. The French translation of his 2005 collection of short stories Na-neun Yuryeong Jakga Imnida (lit. I’m a Ghost Writer) has been completed and is waiting to be published by the French publisher Zulma. This collection is also being translated into German and English. Another gale of Hallyu fanned by a representative novelist of the Republic of Korea who tells stories of human lives with elegant style may be in sight.

*Article from Korea Magazine (April 2012)


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