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WINTER 2008 Vol.22 No.4
Beauty of Korea
Byeoru (Ink Stone)
Background and Development of Korean Kimchi
Kimchi Ideal Health Food for a Well-being Lifestyle
Regional Influences Create Wide Varieties of Kimchi
Sharing Kimchi with Consumers Around the World
Seoul Hosts XXII World Congress of Philosophy 2008
Poet Ko Un “I am my own future!”
Archery Craftsman Yoo Young-ki Blends Strength with Resiliency
Elegant Earthenware Figurines Reveal Silla’s Spirituality
Magnum Korea Exhibition Images of Korean Society’s Diversity
Kevin O’Rourke Passionate Translator of Korean Literature
Sung Shi-yeon A Humble yet Forceful Presence at the Podium
Jeongseon’s Natural Beauty Endures the Passage of Time
Yaksik Rice Cake Tasty and Healthy Treat
Korea Delivers with Speed and Agility
Dance of Exorcism at the Fringe of Existence
WINTER 2008 Vol.22 No.4
  Journeys in Korean Literature
  Dance of Exorcism at the Fringe of Existence
  Kim Young-chan
Professor, Department of Korean Language & Literature, Keimyung University
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For Koo Hyo-seo, it would be no exaggeration to say that his life is immersed in the writing of fiction. Only a quick glance of his 20-year output, since his literary debut in 1987, is needed to assess his prolific writing, which includes 15 novels and seven collections of short stories. If his books are stacked up, the pile’s volume and weight would symbolize the onerous burden that the author’s characters must endure for their day-to-day survival. As such, Koo’s “economics of fiction” call for an economy of writing to coincide with an economy of life. In this way, for Koo, fiction writing is a form of labor, in its most mundane sense.
It is not necessarily a case of conventionality when labor is associated with the creative process, for the breathing of life into objects and their revival, again and again. Conventionality might be evident, but there is another underlying significance as well. Since all worldly affairs, all people, all scenes, and all emotions of this world have been re-created through Koo’s fictional prism, you could say that, all this while, Koo has observed the world through only the eyes of his fiction, such that the entire world is a realm of his fiction writing.
For Koo, the writing of fiction is a means of production, which enables him to read, digest, and humanize the world, turning it into something new and vibrant, thereby bringing him back into the world and allowing him to live there. Life becomes fiction and fiction becomes life. Koo’s fiction exists at an intersection of the two worlds, where it can be difficult to differentiate between the two spheres.
Many of Koo’s characters are straddling a boundary that separates life and death, the present and the past, existence and nonexistence, routine life and life beyond the mundane, worldliness and other-worldliness. This is where the two opposing worlds collide, where for an instance, “incidents” of encounter and exchange can occur between the two realms. Koo’s characters experience these incidents with conscious perception and physical sensation. And the incidents involve internal consequences as well, disrupting the order and perceptions of their mundane lives.
In Koo’s fiction, small but no less significant moments occur in the characters’ lives, creating an upheaval in their everyday routines and inner worlds, while arousing their consciousness. These moments may arise due to the death of an acquaintance, a photograph, desolate scenery, a story someone tells, or an unexpected death sentence that befalls the narrator. In Koo’s story “A Bale of Salt,” this moment occurs when the narrator is handed a Japanese edition of Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and is told this was a book that his late mother used to read.
The characters of Koo unexpectedly encounter themselves or their history in various objects and places. Therefore, “I” am everywhere, not just inside “me.” The characters might see themselves in anything: an old house where they were born and raised; an object in the corner of a photograph, staring into the vast, dark sky; the desolate melancholy of snow-covered woods in winter; a story told by a stranger encountered at the lake; and the gaze of a long-familiar barber.
The “I” in Koo’s stories comes to realize that the past and the future, other people and history, have all been absorbed into “I,” and that “I” exists in the interaction of these spheres. As such, it is this realization of “I” that Koo strives to express to his readers. It is also within this context that the “I” in “A Bale of Salt” makes the following comment, as he compares the parts he had underlined in his copy of Fear and Trembling, with the lines his mother highlighted in her Japanese edition: “I was able to underline these parts even when I could not fully understand the text, only because Mother’s hand was at work.”
Similarly, the recognition of one’s self can be found in the following quotation from another of Koo’s stories, “Where the Clock Used to Hang”: “I could not exist anywhere. Unless I were the wind, the rain, the sky, the sunlight, a cloud or a rock, I could not exist anywhere.”
“I” exists everywhere and nowhere as well. The existence or nonexistence of “I,” left alone amid the infinity of time and matter; the “I” and the corporeal “I,” the place where everything and everyone in the world flow by and encounter “I” along the way; and the internal processes that enable “I” to perceive such encounters—Koo seeks to unravel these entanglements in his writing. And beneath all this lies a nihilistic sentiment, with a keen recognition of the futile emptiness of our life and reality, supplemented by a willingness to embrace the shadows of life, based on self-reflection.
The essence of Koo’s fiction involves a conversion of this nihilistic sentiment into tranquility and reconciliation, which ultimately offers a positive outlook, based on a contemplative attitude toward our mortal lives, and an open exchange that transcends the self, allowing a rediscovery of the self and clearing away any barriers surrounding the self.
In this way, “A Bale of Salt” reveals a willing embrace of life’s shadows, not hopeless resignation in the face of darkness. Reminiscences of the extreme hardship that Mother had to endure, amid the turmoil of the Korean War, further move the reader’s heart. A sack of salt, placed in a dark, humid corner, produces tear-like salt droplets that are used for preparing food—bean curd in this case. This is a metaphor of the heart-rending capability of life’s shadows. At the same time, it also personifies the life of Mother, shedding invisible tears as she embraced her children, while refusing to give in to life’s darkest shadows. Koo has successfully created a unique character in Mother, who had endured the violence wrought by society (ideological clash) and in her personal life (her husband’s beatings), while persistently maintaining her human dignity until the very end.
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