Shiin (The Poet - 1992) is a piece of historical fiction written by one of Korea's leading contemporary novelists, Yi Mun-yol (b. 1948), which resurrects the life and times of the poet Kim Pyong-yon (1807 - 1863).(*) It appears that Yi chose to write about Kim because they had a fundamental commonality - Kim was the grandson of a "traitor" and Yi's father defected to North Korea on ideological grounds during the Korean War and left his family behind. The consequences for both Kim and Yi went well beyond schoolyard hazing.
But Kim Pyong-yon was also a very colorful figure who still has a presence in modern Korean popular culture, where he is known as Kim Sakkat (after the reed or bamboo hat worn by the Korean working classes at the time).(**) When his grandfather, the magistrate of a major city, collaborated with rebels against the central government who had overrun the provincial capital and who were swept away again by the government's army, the former governor and three generations of his family were all condemned to death (not unusual in East Asia).(***) Kim and one of his brothers were hidden in the home of a former servant and escaped execution. But Kim could not escape the consequent life on the margins of society. He made a kind of living as an itinerant poet, coining clever poems for a meal or a room, sometimes winning one of the innumerable poetry contests common throughout East Asia in the 19th century (and before) in order to cash in the prize. In the legend which has built up around him he was a womanizer and a fervent fan of the byproducts of rice fermentation.
So, clearly there is much for Yi to work with here, and work with it he does. Out of the welter of legends and facts about Kim he constructs a plausible life story that holds one's interest closely. This Kim is certainly not admirable, but he is convincingly real. His hopes of regaining high status as a scholar dashed, full of resentment, bitterness and self-absorption, he abandons his wife and two small sons to fend for themselves and wanders the country making a living as mentioned. He often uses his poems as weapons to hurt or embarrass his opponents. One of the legends concerns a poetry contest with a proud monk, for which the ground rules were that if one of the combatants were unable to continue the poem according to the complex rules they had established, he would have to pull one of his own teeth out. In the legend the monk ends up toothless. This is held to be a mark of the excellence of Kim's poetic capabilities. I want to know what kind of son-of-a-bitch would even agree to such a competition. The man was bitter, bitter, bitter.
Fortunately, Kim has a chance meeting with the "Old Drunkard," who planted the seed of the realization that poetry is not rules and cleverness, but character and insight. The old man defends an attitude similar to that of the original Taoist masters Chuang-tzu and Lao-tzu. The Old Drunkard equated "poet" with "sage". Though it was only a seed, and the story of Kim's new life as itinerant poet was just beginning, the seed was to germinate and sprout. After various adventures and internal development, Yi's Kim eventually realizes that the true poet's poem is his life, that the true poet is a sage. Worldly ambition and the bitterness and resentment that come with unfulfilled ambition are unutterably irrelevant. The book ends with Kim's apotheosis as witnessed by his eldest son...
In the process of telling this story of Kim, Yi also provides a picture of life in Korea at the end of the Choson era, when the social fabric was tearing under the strains of poor harvests and the total corruption of all the institutions in the country, when governments officials at all levels were interested solely in enriching themselves and maintaining their advantages, when the military would steal everything they could carry as they moved about the country beating down rebellions, and when the Confucian meritocracy was only a shadow of itself.
Western readers should be forewarned that Yi does not observe the conventions of historical fiction they are familiar with (neither does Shiba Ryotaro, though Shiba's and Yi's works vary from our expectations in different ways). In much of the text it appears that Yi intends to write a critical biography of Kim; he pulls back from the story, analyzes the evidence and proposes hypotheses and arguments. Elsewhere he empathetically projects himself directly into Kim's mind and gives us his "thoughts" and actions along the lines of historical fiction in the modern West. This inconsistency in tone and authorial stance may disturb some readers, but the more I read outside of the 19th and 20th century Western fictional canon, the less I care about such matters.(****) The crux is whether the author communicates something interesting, beautiful, moving and/or profound. No?
(*) The image above is that of a monument to Kim Pyong-yon.
(**) According to this source
among others, Kim Sakkat was also influential in the Korean rap scene (!) and was mentioned by name in the first Korean rap.
(***) Though the grandfather was drawn and quartered(!), most of the family survived by scattering throughout the country until they were pardoned a few years later. Their lives were spared, but their property remained confiscated.
(****) Isn't it the case that some postmodernists reject these kinds of consistency in favor of other kinds? Conventions do help to ease communication, but they also quickly become restrictive and limiting, not only on expression but even on the ability to perceive.