Monday, May 25, 2009
Everlasting Empire, by Yi In-Hwa
Translated by Yu Young-nan (2002 Daesan Prize for Outstanding Literary Translation), with an Introduction by Don Baker.
An historical fiction that examines the last years of King Chongjo (r. 1777-1800), the grandson of King Yongjo, and more notably, the son of Crown Prince Sado, who was killed by his father, King Yongjo, who asked him to step into a rice chest and sealed it, whereupon he died of starvation. For more on that compelling story, The Memoirs of Lady Hyegyeong (wife of Crown Prince Sado) by Jahyun Kim Haboush is vital reading. Told from the point of view of the royal librarian, a fictional character named Yi In-Mong, the story opens with the discovery of a dead Royal Library clerk. It is later revealed that the clerk was murdered by the burning of coal— a newly discovered element at that time in Korea—in the ondol (floor heating) firepit of the library room where the clerk was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. A complicated plot of a missing book, notes on that missing book, and an elusive story of a metal bound coffer, said to contain policy changing thoughts of King Yongjo, is also alluded to be a fictional account created by King Chongjo to reinstate the honor and integrity of his murdered father. The messy and complicated factional politics of the era, the Northern and Southerner camps, including the incursion of the Catholics, is fully explored. The librarian’s dear friend is Tasan, Chong Yag-yong (1762-1836), among the greatest Sirhak scholars of the period who was later persecuted as a Catholic. For more about Tasan, Encounters, by Hahn Moo-Sook, is a must-read. This book isn’t easy reading, especially for those not familiar with Korean ancient history or customs. The characters are many, the politics and governmental structure are complex and hard to follow, and the cultural history dense and laden with an expectation of general understanding that most Westerners don’t have. Yet it’s also a page-turning mystery, a story of enduring and lost love, of honor and loyalty, of immense sacrifice for love of one’s country and king, and how one era in the Choson Dynasty’s long life might have changed the outcome of history had the King been successful with his reforms.