Twofold Song, by Yi Mun-yol, features a kaleidoscopic style that it quite unlike the two other pieces of his that I have read (Our Tortured Hero and An Appointment With My Brother). Yi’s style in this piece, something like the painting of Salvador Dali, combines absolute realism with passages of lovely surrealism. It is the story of separation, the separation of a man and a woman, the separation that all humans must endure as they go, alone, through life, and the additional separation which society adds to this.
The story begins as a man and woman come into being through conversation, or perhaps it is better to say, take human form through conversation. Perversely, when the conversation turns for the worse, the man and woman lose their forms as in the following passage:
Only then does her voice lose its sharpness. The blue cracks around her mouth gradually merge to form a wan smile. But the man has already changed back into a wet plaster statue. More than half of his right leg is buried deep in the ground because he inadvertently stretched it while talking.
This is nicely done pastiche, with the surrealistic shape-shifting described as enabled by the quotidian stretching of a leg. Much of the story is done in this style. The man and woman talk, with the practiced bitterness of old lovers and undertones of Confucian responsibility, of morality, meaning and death. The man and women are single entities for narrative purposes, but by giving them, in their surreal world, nearly eternal lifetimes (‘it looks like a trinket I used to play with and lost about a hundred thousand years ago) and scattered body parts, Yi clearly intends us to see them as standing for human beings in general.
As Twofold Song continues, we get our first glimpse behind the surreal curtain as to what the “reality” of the story might be. The man and the woman ‘build’ a space to have sex, and commence to do so. At this point, not surprisingly for a story by Yi, and not surprising for a story by a modern Korean, the issue of homeland surfaces, but quickly turns away from the typical Korean usage of the term as a return to, or reunification of, Korea itself. Instead the man yearns for the “first” homeland, which he imagines as the primordial sea. Amusingly, this narrative is interpolated with the actual sex act. During the sex act, the bodies lose their surrealistic nature and become, for the first time, human: “Veins like heated steel surge up taut, wrapping around each other on various parts of the man’s body, which once resembled wet plaster. The cracked and cadaverous flesh of the woman also blossoms.”
As sex continues, the tale features its first metaphor/description of a comfortable environment, the jungle, for which both the man and woman long. This metaphor works on several levels, not the least that one can quite easily read Adam, Eve, and Eden into it, or read it as a metaphor for evolution. Nearing orgasm the man and woman alternate ‘sentences’ of short phrases that can also read like gasps of sexual pleasure:
“I remember now … I’m a trilobite … a coral … a proliferan”
“We’re taking shelter from the rain … in the hollow … trunk of an old oak tree. You, you feel … oh, so … warm.”
“I’m an elasmosaurus. I’m a dolphin … a tuna”
At climax, in perhaps the quickest cast of post-coital depression in literature, the tone of the conversation changes, turning again to regrets at leaving the jungle. Once the sex act is concluded, the man and woman turn from beings of flesh, back to beings of surreal imagination.
As the story winds down, the surrealistic elements remain, but Yi changes the arena, narrowing it to a park, and now giving the man and woman specific character – they are lovers, looking for meaning outside their families and spouses, and this is their final assignation. They share one last kiss and part with traces of love and fresh springs of bitterness.
Yi has one more surprise in store, however, as the next paragraph, jarringly, begins with a “just the facts ma’am” the description of an unknown character. That character, a bellboy at the hotel in which the man and woman had their final meeting, briefly describes how the story seemed in his eyes: “Perverts … all that noise in broad daylight … at a time like this.”
This is a bold authorial stroke, as it breaks cleanly with the style and content that preceded it. It is also a tactic that Yi used in An Appointment With My Brother but to astoundingly less effect: as there it seems more consonant with the foregoing tone, but at the same time arbitrarily takced on. In Twofold Song it is a good and clean stroke though, as the bellboy (Kim Si-uk – the only character in the novel who is given a name), who himself accepts commissions from street girls, applies a damning benediction and hypocritical judgment for society, and in doing so shows one more mechanism by which we are all separated.
Yi’s skill in this novel is at limning the fixed spaces between us. Twofold Song echoes Samuel Beckett’s description of a painting by Jack Yeats:
The way he puts down a man’s head & a woman’s head side by side, or face to face, is terrifying, two irreducible singlenesses & the impassable immensity between. I suppose that is what gives the stillness to his pictures, as though the convention were suddenly suspended . . . . A kind of petrified insight into one’s ultimate hard irreducible organic singleness.
And, of course, that kind of talent can create a story that is quite disturbing. I should also note that the Hollym edition (2004) I purchased, is slender but worth searching for. It not only contains, interleaved, the Hangul version of the story, but it is also well illustrated by Kwak Sun-young, is printed on excellent stock, and has that cool attached cloth bookmark thing that I am a major fan of.
Perhaps not all germane to the literary content of the work, but it did make my reading even more enjoyable.