- Of Voice and Men:Kim Hoon Rewrites History as His Story
Kim Hoon's novel Song of the Sword opens as Naval Commander-in-Chief Yi Sun-sin, released after weeks of flogging by the royal prosecutors in the capital, arrives back at his post on the southern coast of the Chosŏn kingdom. It is spring of 1597, five years into Japan's campaign to take over the Korean peninsula and expand into the continent, and the air is drenched in the stench of corpses. Interrogations had not proven Yi's charges of contempt, but nevertheless Yi has received a sentencing, to serve in the war as a foot soldier, "stripped of rank and gear, wearing the white garb of a commoner."
We of course know, as twenty-first-century readers, how history unfolded. As Japanese aggression continued to escalate, Yi was quickly restored to his position and, with only twelve vessels under his command, succeeded in protecting Chosŏn, achieving a military triumph so crucial in Korean history that Yi's statue still stands guard today over Seoul's city center.
In recounting this celebrated story, however, Kim Hoon does not allow history to guide the narrative. Yi Sun-sin's first-person voice, the sole filter through which we experience the war, retains the same austere stance throughout, stripped not only of mythical heroism but also of the external trappings of status and obligation within the Neo-Confucian social order. It is a voice that seems [End Page 11] capable of stepping outside of its medieval surroundings to acquire a modern sense of being.
This naked voice was what drew me to Kim Hoon's work, first as a reader, then as translator. It was a male voice that I, as a woman, had rarely encountered, not only in real-life contemporary Korea but also in literature. Much of modern Korean fiction has been told from the point of view of men, of course, and to me, their voice seemed bound and defined by society. Even when a story or a novel deeply moved me, I did not quite feel that the male narrator or protagonist had spoken to me or for me: Yŏng-su, the eldest son in Cho Se-hui's The Dwarf, delivered to me the heartbreaking story of his working-class family yet I never learned of his personal dreams or longing; the narrator of Kim Sŭng-ok's "Journey to Mujin" laid open to me his existential pain as a pharmaceutical executive working under his father-in-law, but as the title suggests, the voice itself is shrouded in fog; the men in Hwang Sok-yong's fiction were verbally agile and astute when it came to social injustice and absurdities, but far less so about their personal inner truths.
But Kim's Yi Sun-sin somehow spoke to me. In telling his story of a year and a half spent at sea defending the kingdom of Chosŏn against the invading Japanese, he spoke not of loyalty or patriotism but of what he had or did not have to feed his soldiers and how foreign his enemies were to his eyes and ears. Yi's voice was strong yet vulnerable, reticent yet frank, probing yet matter-of-fact, stoic yet pedestrian, specifically medieval yet modern.
At the time of the novel's publication in 2001, I had been away from Korea for five years, during which time I had lost my brother less than a year after the passing of my father, given birth to my son, and separated from my husband. This upheaval in my male relations was one of the reasons I began seeking my own voice in English and pondering the possibility that I had found my adoptive mother tongue, if there was such a thing. This new linguistic kinship seemed like the only way for me to break free from the grief and guilt related to my previous life in my [End Page 12] homeland, with its history as a patriarchal stronghold, a breeding ground for military dictatorships.
So how unlikely it was that the voice that I would choose to...