Review: “Eastern Sentiments” by Yi T’aejun

Eastern Sentiments CoverEastern Sentiments, translated (brilliantly!) and introduced by Janet Poole and published by Weatherhead books is a book of essays by Korean writer Yi T’aejun, who had previously been best known in English for his stories Crows and Before and After Liberation (A Writer’s Memoir).

The anecdotal essay is a very Korean form of writing, which dates back to at least the Joseon Dynasty, and continues on today in the daily newspapers, among other forums. It is a kind of writing that one doesn’t normally see in English these days, and for that reason alone this collection is interesting in literary terms. The essays are short, non-fiction, and resolutely the reflection of the mind of the writer. The essays are interesting for the style and thought that Yi brings to his essays (and at least one extended travelogue, “Record of a Journey to Manchuria”).

Perhaps the best word for Yi’s writing is ‘graceful.’ He writes about many things, but primarily he seems to be trying to look through the hustle and bustle of human life (and its often confused thinking) to find the slender line that connects things, the underlying simple knots that tie things together. The essays range from a few lines, to a few pages each and cover topics including nature, writing, other authors and being a weak drinker in a world of strong ones.

His writing style is precise and often epigrammatic. Some of my favorite lines included the following:

  • Friendship is a matter of loyalty more than affection.  (76)
  • Today the world popular is often used vaguely as a substitute for insincere. (81)
  • He can be precise and brilliant as when he says he does not like hybrid Chrysanthemum, “which bloom all to artificially, as if their heads had been permed.” (44) I wonder what he would make of the hairdo of the average ajjuma today?
  • Or when he talks about the perverse reaction we have all had when we “finally meet a friend for whom I have long yearned, only to find him a nuisance.” (47)

Yi also talks writes about writing –  bemoaning, in a clever passage, how easy it is to read, judge and correct the writing of others, and how difficult it is to do this to our own work.

From time to time I cannot help but wish my writing could be as easy to correct as other people’s. In my own writing I fail to pick up on mistakes as obvious as incorrectly  used verbs, but in other people’s writing even a slight mistake with an adverb immediately leaps out before my eyes and is not easily passed over. (103)

Yi watches nature quite closely (as when he observes the chrysanthemum) and reveals himself to have been a fan of fishing, particularly fly-fishing. He is also a fan of contemplation who somewhat longs for the Yangban/Joseon days gone by, while still able to cast an appreciative eye on things ‘foreign,’ including architecture, art, and different writing styles. Yi has a particular talent for observing specific things and tieing them to an idealized Korean history that he clearly misses, and a time he sees as more virtuous and contemplative

The short-essay format makes this an easy book to read, and one that can be put down and taken up as the mood strikes.

Unfortunately Yi, a man with rather traditional and often bourgeois tastes, decided to “take his talents” to North Korea in 1946, where he lived for 10 years until he entered an uncertain exile and died at some unknown time thereafter . At the same time, because he had cast his lot with North Korea, his books were banned in South Korea until 1988. Those works are now available again, and Eastern Sentiments is a brilliant example of them.

Pick it up.^^

NOTE ABOUT Yi’s Fiction –  Before and After Liberation (A Writer’s Memoir) can be found in the collection On The Eve of the Uprising


Crows can be found in the collection  Modern Korean Fiction and it is also available for free online as a PDF on the Korea Journal website.