Kim Yu Jeong …. The Camellias

The Portable Library of Korean Literature • Short Fiction • 14 • Jimoondang Publishing • Seoul

I read my first stories of Kim Yu-Jeong while concurrently reading the essay Extravagance and Authenticity by Kim Uchang. This proved an interesting set of readings as the essay and the stories focus on romantic love.

Kim Uchang’s essay follows the development of “free-love” as a new cultural artifact in Korea at the start of the 20th century. He is particularly interested (his modern politics, perhaps, showing) in demonstrating that this notion was external, initially quite artificial, and largely at the expense of women. Kim Uchang argues his points on the basis of the works of Yi Gwang-su, Kim Dong-in, Yeong Sang-seop (who wrote the critically noted and important “Three Generations”) and how they demonstrate the artificiality of the notion of romantic love Korea at the turn of the (previous) century.

This notion, of course, can be overplayed, since works as old as Yi-Saeng Peers Through the Wall clearly displayed a notion of romantic love untied from social status or the onus of social procedures. Yi-Saeng would have been written just about the time the crusades were going on just a bit to the west, so romantic love does have some pedigree in Korea dating back further than Kim Uchang discusses. And Kim Yu-jeong’s stories all seem to focus on a fairly pure ‘romantic’ love. I am too new at Korean fiction to assess if this is a function of how Kim Yu-jeong chose his subjects, or if Kim Uchang is over-simplifying. Updates, I suppose, to follow.

Kim Yu-jeong describes love, in stories that are brutal and simple. The liner notes say that Kim “sought his own way of describing … unfriendly reality by composing dark yet humorous stories that usually portray the persevering spirit in the underclass life.”

All three stories are resolutely focused on love and although the stories are not western in any sense, they all describe a love that seems, to a modern eye, a “free” one. In The Camellias love is chosen across class lines, in The Scorching Heat love is tragically lost to a fate as simple as nature, and in A Wanderer in the Valleys we see a love that causes a wife to metaphorically risk every wolf in the human valley.

The Camellias is a “first-love” story in which a rather bumpkin-ish boy confronts Jeomsun a rather higher class girl who loves him. The tone is rough and humorous as Jeomsun is only capable of showing her interest through aggression – the “potato incident” and the “cockfight” being two of the more amusing cases of her sublimated love. The young love is complicated, too, by the fact that Jeomsun is the narrator’s social superior, and this causes him to see Jeomsun’s solicitude and aggression as a form of class warfare. Of course it is, in a way, as Jeomsun pulls stunts that would get a social equal smacked on the head, but Kim plays this for broad comedy and the unnamed narrator’s denseness nearly justifies the lengths that Jeomsun feels she has to go to in order to demonstrate her love. The story ends happily, with the narrator in a symbolic fashion, crawling towards a greater destiny: “I had no choice but to crawl away on hands and knees, up along the rocks towards the mountain peak.”

Kim Uchang may argue that romantic love was a bad match for the early 1900s in Korea, but The Camellias playfully argues that romantic love was a feature of Korean culture at the time.

The Scorching Heat is a sad story, and unleavened by humor. Deoksun, a loving husband physically carries his ill wife on his back, to a hospital that he believes will cure, and pay, her. The story is a detailed pointillist achievement of encroaching despair. When, at the end, the husband and wife walk back to their home, the wife crying on Deoksun’s back and outlining her final wishes, the deep love the two share is nearly heartbreaking. The last sentence, a brilliant concoction of multiple short phrases, and cascading punctuation, puts the tragic message of the story home: This love may not end, but one life assuredly will.

A Wanderer in the Valleys falls somewhere between the other two stories. A wandering woman enters a small settlement, revitalizes a drinking establishment, and marries the son of the owner. On her wedding night she reveals where her true love lies and at the stories’ end Kim gives us a vision of a world threatening and closing in on the narrator, “From all around the howling of wolves drifted down, echoing among the valleys and hills”

One thing I should note, is that liner notes refer to Kim’s “colloquial dialect” and “humor.” On the plot level I could see this, but in terms of writing style, little of this came through the translation for me, and when a bilingual Korean friend noticed the book on my coffee table she picked it up and began to leaf through it. She dropped it back onto the table in about three minutes and said, “This doesn’t sound anything like the original story.” So, perhaps there may be a few translation problems here, although the broader outlines of the humor do come through a bit, particularly in The Camellias.

Finally, I should also note that Kim Yu-Jeong was a college dropout, and like Yi-Sang, died tragically young – at age 29, from consumption.

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