While killing some time in the Waterstone’s in Trafalgar Square I stumbled across a book which I thought looked slightly out of place. Without realising I had already reached out and was examining the cover. As soon as I realised that the book was originally a Korean book I instantly turned the book around to read the blurb.
“The linked stories centre on a family of itinerant singers: a boy and his stepfather and his half-sister. The boy believes the stepfather caused his mother’s death and cannot live with the murderous hatred he feels towards him, so he disappears, leaving father and daughter to travel and perform alone. Believing her art can become elevated to the highest standards only by sensory deprivation, the father has the child blinded. Thereafter, she becomes a legendary performer throughout the region.”
After reading the blurb I knew this book would be unlike any other book I have read. The fact that it is Korean was just a plus.
Before getting to the actual story of 서편제 there is a 13 page foreword written by Michael J. Pettid where he explains the difference of thinking between the Confucian ideology (mainly the scholars and people in power) and the Normal people. I found this very helpful as it cleared up a lot of confusing topics I had picked up on while watching Korean Dramas, period and modern. So it is well worth the read. The Foreword alone made me want to watch a Pansori performance. The idea of experiencing one of Korea’s longest standing forms of story telling put to music has been on my mind since I read about it.
SeoPyeonJe is a novel depicting a man’s journey all around the Southern Provinces of South Korea in search of his long lost half sister, seeking forgiveness for abandoning her at such a young age. We do not learn this man’s name as he is referred to as the “traveller” in the book. During his search he encounters people in villages that were deeply influenced by the songs and mannerisms of his stepfather and sister on their travels many years before.
Following in their long buried footsteps the traveller desperately searches for any clues on the pairs whereabouts, with only the slightest of hopes of actually finding them. It had been 30 years since he left them. Finally he encounters his sister in a tavern, but cannot bring himself to admit who he is so leaves, only to regret it later. So he returns to the tavern to find that she had left shortly after their encounter. His search starts again, and so he travels to the village where it all began, his home town of The Immortal Crane village.
Leaving the narrative of the traveller, we meet a pair of writers by the names Ji-Uk and Kim travelling together to the Daeheungsa Temple so Ji-Uk can ask the monk residing there about the Tao of Tea Drinking. Although this part of the novel seems completely unrelated, there is a very strong connection to the rest of the book.
Starting the book I was a little sceptical about what exactly I was about to read and what kind of impression it would leave on me. However, the more I read the more I felt connected to the characters, mainly the traveller (the brother). I started to feel anxious while reading and thinking up all these different possibilities for the next paragraph (as I do with all books I read).
The fact that all the places visited were so well described meant that as I was reading, in my mind it was like watching a movie. I imagined the novel the way Yi Chung-Jun had written it. This helped with my connecting with the characters and to the book.
Although in the blurb, this novel is described as “memorable and disturbing” I didn’t find it at all as disturbing as I would have thought. It was more memorable and enchanting than anything. The way the traveller became engulfed by the heat of the sun whenever he heard Pansori singing for an extended period of time, as a result of his childhood. I think this is a vital part of the story because if Pansori didn’t leave such a huge impression on him, I don’t think that he would have expended the effort that he did in finding his sister
All in all, I really enjoyed reading 서편제 and would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in Korea. I think that for my very first Korean novel, it was a good choice, especially seeing as the Foreword and certain sections in the novel itself cleared up a lot of little puzzles I had been mulling over for quite some time now.
So we at Korean Class MASSIVE give 서편제 a…
Have any of you read this book? If yes, then what did you think about it and would you recommend it to anyone you know? If no, do you think you would be interested in a novel like this?