Awkward in several off-putting ways, this earnest work—originally published in 1960—can be appreciated for offering a window onto Korean history during the crucial period of division.
Just after the Korean War, on a ship carrying former POWs from South Korea to a neutral country of their choice (rather than returning to the North), Lee Myong-jun serves as go-between for the other prisoners and the captain. Then much of the book becomes a flashback to Lee in his 20s, when the philosophy student is torn between North and South, communism and capitalism, as he discovers the flaws and failures of each. Along the way, he discovers women and sex and spends a fair amount of time idling in a brown study; he can afford to do so because he has been raised by a banker after his mother’s death, and his father’s decamping North to become a radio propagandist for Pyongyang. Running through the book is the uber-dichotomy between the private chamber and the Square, between dwelling in one’s room, say, and in the town center, between an ordinary life and one that embraces the forces of history. Disenchanted with the South, Lee goes to the North before the war and finds the communists are not “miraculous beings and the last guardians of idealism,” as he believed. Aside from the yin-yang parade, the book is strewn with urgent symbols—an Egyptian mummy, a sea gull, a cave in the North, the captain’s compass and charts. The language sometimes suggests the translator was trying to convey clumsiness or had thrown in the towel: “The thought of being with a woman overwhelmed him like an evil conspiracy”; “He had become a man living life with a withered vegetable in his chest.”
No doubt the author, born in the North and raised in the South, was bold at the time in his existential challenge to both systems, but the result is a strange quasi-poetic treatise that could well make a withered vegetable sink.