Sunday 23 November 2014

'Mujong' (The Heartless') by Yi Kwang-su (Review)

We're back with another slight detour from German Literature Month to Korea, and this time we're looking at a more classic book.  Today's post concerns an early modern K-Lit novel from one of the big names of the time.  It's a book that has lofty ambitions to cover a wide range of societal issues - even if it doesn't always hit the target...

Yi Kwang-su's 'Mujong: The Heartless', translated by Ann Sung-Hi Lee) dates from 1917 (which is probably as far back as I've gone in my Korean reading so far).  The main character of the piece is Yi Hyong-sik, a young teacher in Seoul, whose days are spent pouring his energies into teaching his students and avoiding the temptations of the outside world.  He's a shy, chaste innocent young man, so when he is one day visited by a young woman, garbed as a kisaeng (Korean Geisha), he's rather surprised - especially when she claims she knows him.

The young woman turns out to be Pak Yong-ch'ae, the daughter of Hyong-sik's dead mentor, and having kept her innocence intact despite her years entertaining drunken men, she has come to find the man her father recommended as her husband before his death.  So, is there to be a happy ending for Hyong-sik and Yong-ch'ae?  It's rather unlikely.  This is no fairy tale, and these two young naive people have other destinies...

Let's be clear about something from the start; Mujong is not a book for the average reader to pick up and flick through.  It's a story of an alien place and time, written in a rather dry style for the most part, which may well put many readers off.  I've encountered Yi's work twice this year already (The Soil, Gasil), and he doesn't have the most endearing of styles - calling him didactic is probably being generous ;)

However, if you can get past this, Mujong is an entertaining story.  While the focus is mainly on Hyong-sik and Yong-ch'ae, there is a love triangle of sorts as the young teacher falls for the attractions of his private English student, Kim Son-hyong.  She is a fresh-faced eighteen-year-old (in Korean years...) and makes for a striking contrast to Yong-ch'ae and her kisaeng past.  Hyong-sik, thus far pure of body, is tempted both by his young student (who is later offered to him in marriage) and the beautiful Yong-ch'ae, a woman he feels bound to marry from gratitude to his deceased mentor.

This is very much a book of awakenings, with all of the major characters beginning to think about themselves, and the society they live in, for the first time.  One major awakening is obviously their growing awareness of their sexuality: Yong-ch'ae has been saving herself for Hyong-sik, a deluded fantasy which might yet prove to be dangerous; Hyong-sik is just starting to realise that there's more to life than books.  Perhaps the most innocent of the three, though, is Son-hyong, a young girl who has led a very sheltered life thus far:
"She was the same as when she had been born - the same as when she had been organically and biologically produced.  She was like a machine that had been kept in a storage shed and never actually been used.  She was not yet a person."
p.136 (Cornell East Asia Series, 2005)
Now, with marriage imminent, she's forced to confront the realities of life, including the prospect of physical relations with a man she doesn't really know...

Mujong focuses on social awakenings too, with the book being as much a critique of Korea and its people as the story of a love triangle.  In fact, Yi (through Hyong-sik), frequently uses his opportunity to criticise neo-Confucian norms, cultural ideas which are holding Korea back:
"Hyong-sik believed that while all human beings were the same by nature, an individual or society could be improved and uplifted with the effort of that society or individual.  The women, however, believed that humans had no responsibility for what happened in life.  Human beings just lived life as it happened, with no improvement or reform through human will.  This is how Koreans view life!" (p.209)
One concrete aspect of this fatalism is the failing school system, where cronyism and ignorance need removing so that the country can modernise after the western model.  It's high time that unnecessary customs and beliefs are swept away.

The major area Yi sets his sights on is young arranged marriages, a topic the writer had personal experience of.  Mujong features several examples of unhappy marriages which lead to dismal lives, with concubines, kisaeng and suicide more prevalent than loving couples.  Modern readers will be dismayed by the way in which several disturbing scenes (including female oppression and rape) are glossed over matter of factly, but in many ways this is a book which attempts to fight the feminist cause.  While offensive in parts by 21st-Century standards, Mujong does raise the issue of the way women are treated, in particular insisting on treating the scorned kisaeng like any other woman.

Mujong is a book of its time in other ways too.  It's divided into 126 short sections, reflecting its origins as a serialised newspaper novel, very much as early modern Japanese novels appeared (a fact which makes it a little repetitive at times, as serialised works often are).  In fact, there are other similarities to early J-Lit.  The way Yi uses internal monologues, with the characters going back and forth in their agonised deliberations, is reminiscent of Natsume Soseki's Light and Dark.  While nowhere near as insightful as the Japanese writer's work, Yi's novel can show some surprisingly nuanced psychology at times.

This edition of the novel is actually an academic one, a translation bundled with an extended introduction with information about both the author and the book.  While I appreciate Ann Sung-Hi Lee's efforts, I have to say that it wasn't amazingly illuminating, erring on the side of academic appropriacy over interesting reading.  And, in truth, that pretty much sums up the book as a whole.  As mentioned above, it's certainly not for everyone, but serious K-Lit aficionados looking to broaden their knowledge of the period should definitely check it out :)