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The Last of Seven YearsKim Yeon-su

“If the Korean words are dying within you, you also should feel responsible for those deaths. You would have to think of death day after day. Think of death morning and night. Otherwise you wouldn’t be living properly. You have to think of the words dying each and every day. That’s the job of a poet. Like washing your face every day, regularly” (p. 164).

『The Last of Seven Years』

Author : Kim Yeon-su
Publisher : Munhakdongne
Publication date : July 1, 2020
Number of pages : 248
Format : 133x200mm
ISBN : 9788954672771

Kim Yeon-su

Born in 1970 in Gimcheon, Gyeongsangbuk-do, he graduated as an English literature major from Sungkyunkwan University and started out as a writer in 1993 with poems published in the summer issue of Writer's World. His short story collections include Twenty and When Still a Child, his novels Whoever You are, No Matter How Lonely and If the Waves Belong to the Sea, while he has also published essay collections such as Sentences of a Springtime and Finding Meaning on the Road: The Right to Travel. Among other prizes, he received the Yi Sang Literary Award in 2009, Hwang Sun-won Literary Award in 2007, Daesan Literary Award in 2005 and Dong-in Literary Award in 2003.

After the Revolution Ended

 

Kim Yeon-su’s The Last of Seven Years is a work that deftly brings to life Baek Seok’s inner anguish, concentrating on the three or more years when the North Korean authorities’ criticism of Baek Seok intensified, leading to his purge. The novel, which takes Baek Seok’s real life as its motif, is far from an attempt to revive the various facets of Baek Seok, active as a Socialist writer in North Korea. In the novel, Baek Seok the Socialist poet is hardly revealed. This is because the author deliberately chooses not to distance himself from “the attitude that predicates that literary truth and sincerity will lie elsewhere” and that the poems created by Baek Seok in North Korea are “texts of lies and disguise that were necessary to adapt to the system and survive.”[1]

Some point out that this attitude is the outcome of the subjectivity of a researcher not wanting to acknowledge the other face of Baek Seok as it is. However, the existence of such subjectivity and desire itself is hardly problematic, considering that this work is not aiming to be a rigorous investigation of Baek Seok’s literary world. What is important is the “subjectivity and desire” that Kim Yeon-su displays in his process of reconstructing Baek Seok’s tragic literary end. It is worth remembering that Baek Seok in this novel, even though his life in it is based on strictly proven biographical facts, is Baek Seok as passed through the lens of Kim Yeon-su.

Let me toss you a sudden question. If there is a literary universality that The Last of Seven Years wants to lay claims on, what would it be? If this novel were to be translated into another language, and someone with no knowledge whatsoever of the life of a man named Baek Seok and his work comes across this novel, what will they read from it? Would they underline similar parts and feel similar things reading similar sentences as Korean readers? Or would those readers to whom Baek Seok is unknown not be able to share the regret and tragedy that we feel?

It would not be like that. Eastern European readers would naturally recall artists in their country who suffered a similar fate, and the position would not be much different for Western readers who went through the culture wars in the Cold War era. I am not trying to say that Kim Yeon-su has borrowed Baek-seok’s life to expose the long-standing hostility and confrontation of politics and art. Primarily because North Korea suppressed hints of the thaw that took place in the Soviet Union and dashed in the exact opposite direction, which reminds us of the inherent contradiction of the state of partition of the Korean peninsula that cannot be fully absorbed into the history of the Cold War. What is more, in that process, Baek Seok’s fate, which became a taboo subject on both sides of the border, is historically distinct from the tragedy that artists in Eastern Europe had to suffer.
Nevertheless, it is also clear that “the regrettable story of a sentimental lyric poet forced to be reborn as a new type of human by the Socialist state which leads to the demise of both him and his literature” is the “master plot” representing the position of the “Free World” during the Cold War of the 20th century. In “the tragic fate of the poet Baek Seok,” forming the framework of this novel, lies not only the uniqueness of the individual character Baek Seok, who sang of being lofty, destitute and forlorn, but also the entangled politico-aesthetic issue of the Cold War, mainly raised by anti-Communists in the West, that is the opposition of oppressive ideology and the autonomy of art.

Of course, as Kim Yeon-su notes in his afterword, the biggest reason for writing this novel was probably because he wanted to bring new life to “Gi-haeng’s mind” (p. 244) and let us come face to face with him. And probably because he wanted to tell Baek Seok, who “would have thought that his life was a complete failure” (p. 246) that this was not necessarily the case. He should see us standing here, facing a poet’s mind brought to life and daring to imagine his last years, in quiet and soothing tones. In that respect, this work is an accomplishment. Consisting of over thirty vignettes, the novel is quite short for a full-length novel based on historical characters and events. Kim Yeon-su’s craftsmanship, choices and focus deftly bring us somewhere along the line to the harsh fate of a tormented poet.

But once more, it needs to be emphasized that the core of the novel lies not only in the reconstituted inner life of Baek Seok, but also in the nature of the social pressure and conflict that forms that inner anguish. That pressure and conflict act as direct factors driving Baek Seok’s doomed fate in the novel as do the hostilities frequently cited in discussions of the relationship between art and politics. In the novel, this is revealed through the exposure of the fiction and deceit of “Socialist realism” or “Juche aesthetics,” but it is not valid to see it as a problem limited to a “creative methodology.” This is because even that methodology is deduced from the characteristics of man and society that North Korea at the time contrived to create anew.

 

By Han Young-in
Literary critic

——

 
[1] Lee Sang-sook, “To Understand Baek Seok After The Partition,” in Destitute But Glorious, Samin Books, 2020, pp. 46-47.



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