Kim Yeon-su is an intellectual writer. Writers may write to earn a living, but it is unusual to find a writer who is not an intellectual, and it may indeed be redundant to mention one word alongside the other. However, I would like it to be understood that here “intellectual” is meant to indicate the abundant reading and deep reflection revealed in his work.
The first work by Kim Yeon-su to gain recognition was a full-length novel, “Walking Pointing at a Mask,” published in 1994. This work, which received the prize awarded by the literary magazine Jakga Segye (Writers’ World), alludes strongly to the postmodernism that had a deep influence on Korean society and culture in the 1980s and 1990s. Although the novel was experimental and challenging, it exhibited a playfulness characteristic of a young man in his early twenties.
After gaining recognition, Kim Yeon-su distanced himself from the aggressive experimentalism of his first work while developing his own form and style, but without completely shaking off the postmodern world view. He was concerned with the problem of interrogating the boundaries between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, reality and text, while focusing on doubts and inquiries about fiction. In the suggestively titled collection of short stories, “I Am a Ghost Writer” as well as the novel “Goodbye, Yi Sang,” centered on a non-existent work by Yi Sang, a modernist writer of the 1930s, where he distinguished between the real and the fake, the reciprocal relationship between work and life, these features can be confirmed.
Another characteristic of Kim Yeon-su is his cosmopolitan sensitivity. He is not only a writer; he enjoys overseas travel, has a deep knowledge of pop music, and has translated foreign novels by such writers as Raymond Carver. Like Haruki Murakami, who has also translated several of Carver’s works, Kim enjoys running marathons from time to time; these similarities in cultural tastes and lifestyles, rather than imitation, are affirmations of a common world view with which the author imbues his work.
Foreign place names and foreign characters also appear in “Mi in April, Sol in July.” In fact, since the 2000s, it has become very common for foreign characters and foreign places to appear in Korean fiction. Therefore, it might seem that to point out Kim Yeon-su’s cosmopolitan inclination is rather simplistic. Anyway, in this story, the maternal aunt of the narrator, originally named Cha Jeong-sin, has gone to the United States, taken the name Pamela, and married an American man named Paul. We learn that the couple lives in the small coastal town of Sebastian in Florida.
The narrator goes to New York to meet his girlfriend and takes the opportunity to visit his aunt in Sebastian. He admits that, “all the tales told by Aunt Pam that day and the next evening had a big influence on our own marriage.” So the main character of this story is Aunt Pamela and the narrator is the messenger who, influenced by his aunt’s stories, transmits them to the reader.
“If the last face you see at the moment of death is not the face of a person you’ve loved for your whole life, then no matter what kind of life that person lived, you cannot help but say that his or her life has been unfortunate. So marry without reservation, then have babies. That’s all I want to say.”
This is the heart of the stories his aunt tells, and she admits that it has been a source of strength in her own bitter experience. The novel is made up of her experience and the background out of which the now elderly aunt has reached this conclusion about life.
The aunt, who was a very beautiful actress in her youth, eloped with a married man who had been the director of the movie she had appeared in. The place they eloped to was Seogwipo, on Jeju Island. The two lived in a house with a tin roof, looking out to the sea, until one day the man’s wife appeared with their child, ending his aunt’s idyll after three months.
The aunt describes the rain falling on the tin roof: “In April, when we first set up house, it was mi, then it gradually rose up the scale, until by July it was at sol.” Then she recalls, “For those three months, every night I lay in the director’s arms listening to the rain.”
This short story, with the intriguing title of “Mi in April, Sol in July,” is about the narrator’s aunt, whose Korean name is Cha Jeong-sin and whose American name is Pamela Cha. Each name evokes a number of different stories. Between the two names, there are hidden times when happiness, unhappiness, wounds and consolation intersect.
After restoring the man she loved to his wife and removing the child she was carrying under pressure from her family, Cha Jeong-sin goes to America alone and starts a new life as Pamela Cha. She meets Paul, falls in love and marries him, but her love for him was not enough to exorcise her love for the movie director. Readers cannot tell whether it is because of the difference between first and second love, or because of the difference between frustrated and fulfilled love, or whether it is for both reasons. Because what lies deep inside another person is an abyss that cannot be observed precisely. However, it is a painful moment for the aunt, who cannot forget Seogwipo as it had been the setting for her first love, a kind of honeymoon, when Paul, who is dying of cancer, says that he wants to visit Seogwipo before he dies.
The reason Paul wants to go to Seogwipo at the southern tip of Korea on the far side of the earth is because he thinks he should “look at the shape of the terrain, and explore the overall feel of the city, so that he might be reborn there.” This idea comes from a misunderstanding of the Eastern notion of reincarnation, but he hopes to meet up with his wife again after he dies.
After Paul’s death, Pamela returns to Seogwipo for good. But the real reason for her to return to Seogwipo seems to be in order to savor her memories of the time she spent there with the long-deceased movie director Jeong Gil-seong.
One day, she receives a visit from the director’s son, Jeong Ji-un. For her, it seemed the fulfillment of her dream of seeing the face of one she has loved for a lifetime at the moment of death. She must have been unhappy that her dream could never be fulfilled because she had been separated from the director, who died while still relatively young. In the end, the conviction that she had loved a person worth loving, seemingly affirmed by meeting the son who resembled the man she had loved, appears to be of great comfort to her.
In this way, love passes, the person(s) who were loved are dead and gone, but their story continues without an ending. Stories have long lives.