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  • Between Memory and Prediction:Recasting a Mountain Village in Yi Sang's "Ennui"
  • John M. Frankl (bio)

Yi Sang spent the great majority of his life in Seoul. His brief sojourn to rural northern Korea in 1935 lasted only three weeks, and represented only his second trip outside the capital. Despite its brevity, at least six separate essays emerged from this journey. As might be expected, the contents of the essays do share a certain degree of overlap, and thus allow some productive comparisons. In other crucial respects, however, they are quite different. Only two of them were written in Korean, marked by the author as having been completed, and published in the 1930s. Of these two, only one appeared while Yi was still alive. The remaining four were written in Japanese, and were [End Page 253] not made public until the 1960s and 1970s, and then only in Korean translation.

Even "Lingering Impressions of a Mountain Village" and "Ennui," the two essays written in Korean and denoted by the author as having been completed, however, exhibit some salient points of divergence. The former appears to have been written in "real time," while Yi was bodily located in Sŏngch'ŏn, a remote village in what is now South P'yŏngan Province, North Korea. He would have constructed this essay from inside its own setting, transmitting it to Seoul in pieces, which were published from September 27 to October 11, 1935, in the daily newspaper Maeil sinbo. Despite the similarities in terms of setting, however, Yi did not pen "Ennui" until December of 1936, a full year and two months after "Lingering Impressions." It was posthumously published in another Seoul daily, the Chosŏn ilbo, from May 4 to May 11, 1937. In addition to the temporal gap between the two essays, there also exists a significant geographical disconnect: Yi composed the latter piece not on a return trip to Sŏngch'ŏn but in Tokyo, approximately four months before his untimely passing there on April 17, 1937, at the age of 26. The similarities between the two works have been briefly noted above. Given the significant overlap in setting, action, and characters, however, a certain amount of convergence is to be expected. Rather less foreseeable and more interesting are the quite different ways in which Yi remembers and recounts his time in Sŏngch'ŏn while so temporally and geographically distant from it.

As I have written elsewhere, Yi was never a nationalist, and in fact took great pains to stake out a very personal and decidedly non-nation-based identity. I also explained, however, that the nation—or at least those who spoke in its name—was not quite so willing to give up Yi.1 Arguing that Yi disavowed nation-based [End Page 254] identity in "Lingering Impressions" is, however, quite different than claiming he actively sought to denigrate it. Yi did aggressively demarcate his own personal territory. At times he employed somewhat pejorative accounts of local people and customs to achieve his ends, but these were also tempered with certain positive interjections. He maintained a balance. Certainly, he did not consider what he encountered in Sŏngch'ŏn to represent his countrymen or his ways, but neither did he find them repugnant. Rather we discover in his earlier work certain positive sentiments. Some, particularly when viewed in contrast to those expressed in "Ennui," even border on nostalgia. In only the third paragraph, describing the night, he mused: "The air is so crystal clear, however, I feel I might easily read my cherished Gospel of 'Luke' by starlight alone. And I could swear there are twice as many stars out here as in the city. It is so quiet that I seem to hear for the first time traces of the movement of those stars." He went on to discuss such things as "drafting the poetic sentiments of this intermontane hamlet" and spending "all day long . . . gazing at flowers." And, finally, even when he superciliously likened the locals' reaction to modern technology to "a bunch of North Pole 'penguins' tilting their heads before a gramophone," he prefaced it by referring to them as "(t)ownspeople like...


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