Korean American Books

Summaries and reviews of fiction and nonfiction books by Korean American authors,
books about Korean Americans and Korea, and Korean literature in English translation,
including some academic works and a sampling on the Korean War

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Poet, by Yi Munyol

Translation of a 1992 novel about a 19th century Korean poet. [Publishers Weekly review] The first novel by leading South Korean writer Yi Mun-yol to be published in the West in English, this moving, luminous story is based on the life of Kim Pyong-yon (1807-1863), a bamboo-hatted vagabond poet. Though born to an upper-class Seoul family, Kim was forced to live as an outcast as punishment for a perceived transgression that acquired the weight of original sin. When he is four, his politically influential grandfather surrenders to a rebel peasant army only to be recaptured by government troops, branded a traitor and executed. Fearing a similar fate, Kim's parents go into hiding, and the boy spends the next four years on his own, wandering, until he is reunited with his family, now ostracized as the relatives of a traitor. Striving to regain lost status, Kim aspires to be a gentleman-scholar, becoming a popular entertainer amusing the gentry with his lyrics. Later, as a populist bard, he writes revolutionary songs and poems that celebrate his sexual trysts with low-class women and mock venal nobles, exploitive landlords and bogus scholars. Finally, as a Taoist poet at one with nature and gifted with supernatural powers, Kim rejects his own son's pleas to return to the wife he abandoned. First published in Korean in 1992, this novel, despite an occasionally stiff translation, succeeds brilliantly both as fictionalized biography and as an inspirational parable about the artist's struggle to survive. 

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