Hailji at the Swedish Literary Society

IMG_5391SHaiji was at the Swedish Literary Society’s 37th meeting. He has written (in translation) The Republic of Uzupis and Blue Meditation of the Clocks. He gave a speech, reading and answered questions. As usual, I wrote down his answers as quickly as I could, but they are NOT verbatim!

The Swedish ambassador opened, noting Hailji’s impact in France, and his ability to upset conservatives. “Tonight’s writer always attracts attention. ”

Haiji began with hellos and thanks. He joked in English asking the President of LTI Korea if the translator was good. Noted he had been interested in literature since childhood, and most influenced by Shakespeare in becoming a writer. Hamlet shocked him and he couldn’t sleep. Because Hamlet had such a different form as a piece of literature compared to what he had read previously and it presented a new form of storytelling. So Shakespeare became his idol. And he told himself he would become as great a writer as Shakespeare. Thinking back he believes Shakespeare fascinated him because he was a young boy in the 50’s and Shakespeare had a moustache and long locks that were representative of his era. Perhaps similar to the way that young people around the world are influenced by the good looks of K-Pop stars. The young boy who wanted to become a great writer like Shakespeare has now turned 50 and has not become a rival to Shakespeare. Sometimes he becomes depressed that he is not like Shakespeare and is a loser. Shakespeare influenced him in two ways. First, a new and fresh way to tell a story and the second was that the universality was able to move a young Korean boy living in the hills in the 50s. The questions of the new and universal have become the two challenges that Shakespeare has set him in his life.

After studying in France for six years, he returned to Korean and published his first novel, The Racetrack.

NOTE: From here on out we go to his “I” mode^^

The Racetrack made me famous overnight, but I still remember the response of Korean readers at that time. 5 out of every 10 readers trembled with distaste at my work. Many literary critics cursed my work, and my personally. At that time I could sympathise with Manet after he released “Olympia.” According to critics at that time I was an immoral writer and my work was immoral. On the other hand, 1 out of every 10 readers trembled with admiration for my work. The people who liked my work told me it was new and a unique way of telling a story. So we had the 5 people who disliked my work, the 1 out of 10 who liked it, and the remaining 4 who failed to understand it. I recently met a critic who is also the president of a publishing house. He told me privately he didn’t get my Racetrack books back then, and he still doesn’t get it. There were so many critics who went out of their way to criticize my works and myself and I debated them and they hated me all the more. So now my work has become part of the canon, and is taught at universities. But when the books came out, they were a major controversy in Korean literature.

In 1991 I adopted The Racetrack into a movie and when it was released it faced the same kind of response. One critic blamed me, the director, and the innocent actors, even directing swear words at them. But today there are some critics who actually say this movie started the Korean new wave in movies.

In the three years after the first Racebook I published 3 more books on the theme, and I believe that made the critics gave up. So now I am enjoying the peace and quiet. For the past 25 years I have published 12 novels , 2 collections of poems, some essays, and every time I wrote a books I always made a point of trying something new and different, because I believe if it is not new, it is not art.

Tonight I will be sharing with you my work The Republic of Uzupis and I believe that this is also a new form of telling a story. So what is so new? What is new is that it is simple and very naïve. There is nothing new about the form of the story that makes it different and new. Just to let you know how simple and stupid this work is, I will share with you The beginning of the book.


So, my word is simple and unique. Nevertheless, this book has been published in Lithuania and the US, is being translated into Czech and French, and I heard a Turkish publisher is interested. I sometimes have a quiet laugh at myself at the people who might be so stupid and simple to want to translate my work which is so stupid and simple it might not be of value. I say to myself, people around the world might be wishing for simple and stupid things to read. It’s probably for the same reason people were so amused by PSY’s “Gangnam Style” with is simple and slutty (?) lyrics. For the past 5 years the newness I have always been searching for is in simplicity and that is why my work is so readable. A few days ago in Paris my poetry collections were published as audio-books. If you listen to those works, you will have a chance to see how simple my works are.

“You will have a chance to listen to my broken English”


So my work is simple and easy, even though some readers say my books are difficult to understand. That is probably why my books don’t sell and I need to make a living by teaching at University. Why do I write such simple work – probably because my brain is not complicated enough to create complicated work. Most of all, just like all other animals are simple, human life, if you take one step backwards and look at it from a distance, I believe human life is not complicated either.

This very simple human life goes through a repetitive cycle. In every day life we eat, drink, work, sleep, and this is a cycle that goes on again and again. People are born, grow up, get old, get sick and die, and this is also a repetitive cycle and I wanted to work on this cycle. He then compared it to Waiting for Godot. I just shared the opening of U and as you could see there is an Asian man named Hall arriving in Lithuania at the beginning of his journey to Uzupis. Hall is a diplomat’s son, who has followed his father. He became a migrant when his country lost independence. When it regained independence he returned to it, to bury his father. However Hall is not able to find his own home country, he travels around snow-covered Lithuania and talks to many people, but cannot find the way back to his home country. So Hall follows his own destiny, that is part of the cycle he follows, and he goes to a deserted apartment and kills himself. His tragic destiny is repeatedly expressed in this novel. My editor in Lithuania decided to translate the novel because of it’s metaphysical meaning when you get to its end, unlike it’s simple beginning. This novel is successful in Lithuania, unlike in Korea. I have mentioned, often, that I pursue new forms in literature. However I was not able to become a great writer like Shakespeare, and am not sure why.

However, in this world there are many writers, unknown, who have not be able to fulfil that Shakespearean dream. My life is part of that cycle of writers who are not able to become Shakespeare, just like the character in Uzupis. The French would simply say, c’est la vie.


1) Is there any social message in the book?

He begins to answer in English … “What is a social problem, I don’t know. We live to make social problems. Sometimes they say a novel is about social problems. I think every novelist.. then cuts back to Korean.. All novels deal with social problems and issues. If we are talking about social problems we might expect the writer to be very specific. But take the example of Samuel Beckett, we wouldn’t say he is not dealing with social issues.

2 When we read about your work, there are comments about it being controversial. How would you explain that, what provoked it? You also said you are always trying to do something new, but then you did four consecutive books with “racetrack” in the title?

I think my work angers the Korean literary community for many reasons. One might be that I wasn’t good looking enough.

Roland Barthes once said one author alone would not have much to write about. I’m quite afraid that a description of the Racetrack books might be to lengthy. However, people were quite surprised about the repetitive titles. One though I had in my youth is why isn’t literature as pure as music. Beethoven would call his sonatas, Sonata 5. I though, whey can’t we do this with fiction. I actually wanted my titles to be 1,23,4, some people thought it was too simple, so instead I repeated the “racetrack.”

3 Who is your favorite French writer?

Here he mentioned Flaubert, but immediately asserted Kafka and Shakespeare.

Then, it was dinner-time, so the story ends.^^