Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Reverse Side of Life





















The Reverse Side of Life by Lee Seung - U, was originally published in Korean as Saeng-ui Imyeon back in 1992, it was awarded the first Daesan Literary Award, and translated into English by Yoo-Jung Kong. The novel is narrated, by a nameless journalist who reluctantly, (repaying an old favour to an editor), finds himself writing an 'Author Focus' piece about a writer named Bak Bugil. The novel uses a fascinating mixture of literary approaches and narrative techniques in presenting the initial years of the author, one of the first questions the reader finds themselves contemplating could be how bigger portion of the novel is taken from Seung-U's real life experiences, something the narrator finds himself reflecting upon through out his study of Bak Bugil. Immediately the author reads many of Bak Bugil's collections of stories and essays and exploring his novels for pointers, he meets the author twice, the second time ends up with him drinking too much. From a young age Bak is told that his father is a genius who is away studying, he is expected to pass an advanced examination, with the intention of becoming a judge. Bak is brought up in his Uncle's house, in the yard of which grows a persimmon tree, which he is told he must stay away from, and never to pick it's fruits. From an early age he is a voracious reader, Gide and Hesse are among writers who are referenced to within the novel, and in later parts also Endo, Borges and Lagerkvist, there's little mention of Korean Literature if any at all, as indeed there's very little if any reference to Korean culture as a whole within the novel, but as the novel progresses through the late sixties and into the nineteen seventies the narrative picks up with discontent the students feel, a planned protest is suppressed. The use of peoples name is something kept to a minimum, this fact in a way mirrors that of Baks unique and individualistic approach to his life and world view, he reads to keep the external world at bay -

In short, his engrossment in reading was not to discover a paradise within books. He just wanted to shut his eyes to his own reality. In this respect books were a kind of anaesthetic from early on. Hence now, writing as an adult, he confessed in a low voice while donning a slightly awkward smile, his writing could be considered a kind of anaesthetic.


The narrator is constantly addressing and questioning Baks motives and cross referencing episodes within his life with those in his writings, combining literary theory with a detective like inquisitiveness, the narrative does lean at times on repetition, and incorporates the novel, (or perhaps here novels), within a novel technique, at the same time the differing perspectives, that of the Bak appearing in his novels, the narrator trying to construct a portrait of the writer, with that of the narrators access to unpublished novels and stories, creates a highly compelling narrative, these juxtaposing viewpoints in a way contribute to the repetition, but are essential as the narrator sifts through the events. Young Bak is unable to stop himself from venturing into the yard and in one of the out buildings he discovers a man there kept in shackles, he is later told that the man is a servant of his uncles who has gone mad and that he should not talk to him, although Bak finds the man has a gentle aspect to him and forms a friendship with him, Bak suspects that the rule about the tree was a cover in order to prevent meeting this man. At around this time a man who was born in the village returns from studying and opens a church, many rumours circulate about the church and the motives of the pastor, people reportedly go in and out of the church late at night, his mother becomes involved with the church, and through using Bak's novels and stories the narrator tells the story of Bak's eventual detachment from his mother, also he learns that his father is studying at Jinnam, Bak makes a failed attempt at leaving the village to find his father but is caught and is severely punished by his Uncle, which further instilled in him the desire that he has to leave the village. The narrative follows Bak as he leaves the village and severs the links with his family and after a period of wandering finds himself in Seoul where after being assaulted by a guard he takes refugee in a church after hearing the music of a piano being played, this in turn leads him to meet, Jongdan, a young woman who he sees shares a similar world view to that of his own. It is difficult to describe in detail the events that occur within the novel without giving them away,  these discoveries as they are read are integral to appreciating it. The novel conveys the emotional difficulties Bak faces with addressing his past, his story is wrought with turmoil and upheaval.                        


The Reverse Side of Life at Peter Owen

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