Paul Fulcher's Reviews > Endless Blue Sky

Endless Blue Sky by Lee Hyoseok
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bookshelves: 2018, korean-literature

Respecting and wanting to learn the customs of a loved one is an attempt to adapt oneself to that person and is, perhaps, the greatest act of devotion that love inspires.

The recently founded publisher Honford Star's stated mission is to "publish the best literature from East Asia, be it classic or contemporary. We believe there are many important East Asian authors and books yet to be read by English-language readers, so we aim to make these works as accessible as possible. By working with talented translators and exciting local artists (and paying everyone fairly), we hope to see more bookshelves containing beautiful editions of the East Asian literature we love."

Their first book was Sweet Potato (my review, an excellent but also important collection of the short stories of Korean author Kim Tongin.

Endless Blue Skies is their 3rd book, and 2nd translation from the Korean, and again a very important work for English language readers to appreciate the development of Korean literature pre 1945, as well as an enjoyable read in its own right, but one with a very different sexual aesthetic to Kim Tongin's work.

이효석 (Lee Hyoseok) (1907-1942) is best known today for the 1936 short story 메밀꽃 필 무렵 (When the Buckwheat Blooms, a translation by Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton can be found at The popularity even today of this story reflects its nature as a lyrical bucolic tale of Korean life:

The moon was a day or two past full, and its light was soft and pleasant. Twenty miles of moonlit walking lay before them to Taehwa-two mountain passes, a stream crossing, hilly paths along endless fields. They were traversing a hillside. It was probably after midnight by now, and it was so deathly still the moon seemed to come alive; you could almost hear it breathe, right there in front of you. Awash in moonlight, the bean plants and the drooping corn stalks were a shade greener. The hillside was covered with buckwheat coming into flower, and the sprinkling of white in the gentle moonlight was almost enough to take your breath away. The red stalks seemed delicate as a fragrance, and the donkeys appeared to have more life in their step.   

But he also wrote two full length novels including this, 벽공무한, serialised in the 매일신보 (Daily News) in 148 installments from 25 January 1940 to 8 July 1941. See벽공무한 for the Korean original.

The translation is from Steven Carpener, a literature professor at Seoul Women's University, who has written extensively on Lee Hyoseok's, and this edition comes with a very helpful introduction as well as footnotes.

Writing in the Seoul Journal of Korean Studies in 2009, Carpener explained how Lee's late work does not fit the neat political labels of socialism or Korean nationalism, or both, expected by later critics of works written under the Japanese occupation; instead he is a Korean DH Lawrence, also influenced by Walt Whitman and Milton, as suggested by the paper's title Paradise Found: Recovery and Redemption in Lee Hyoseok’s Later Literature.
The picture that we are given by most of what has been written about Lee Hyoseok (1907-1942), the author and the man, is a complex one. He is portrayed in Korean literary criticism in surprisingly disparate ways. Examples of the epithets by which his work (and often his person) have been categorized are “decadence,” “fascination with the foreign,” “escapist,” “romanticist,” “accommodationist,” “naturalist,” “eroticist,” “aestheticist,” and “collaborationist.”
Much of what was written after 1936, and this is especially true for Lee Hyoseok’s later works, does not fit very neatly into the picture of the latter colonial Korea that has been painted by many historians and literary critics. In fact, the picture of Korea between 1936 and the beginning of the Pacific War in December of 1941 portrayed in Lee's (and other’s) works, is greatly at odds with the bleak images of one-sided exploitation at the hands of the colonial masters. What we see in Lee's full-length novels Pollen and Endless Blue Sky, is a diversity of experience and choice that speaks more to a modern cosmopolitanism, which includes hope for individual salvation, than to a deepening poverty of wallet and spirit. The treatment of such portrayals of the colonial experience by critics has traditionally been, of course, to dip the pen in the poison ink of collaboration, or, in Yi’s case, of accommodation.
Endless Blue Skies tells the story of 천일마 (Cheon Ilma). He is 35 when the novel opens and searching for meaning in life:

You’re already thirty-five, right? You’ve lived more than half your life; isn’t it about time you started to really make something of yourself?’

‘When I think of my age, I do feel a bit embarrassed, but I’m pretty sure there will be some good things ahead. I can’t keep going on like this …’

Far from smooth, the first half of his life had been crooked and thorny. Even failing at his first love paled in comparison to the tragedy he had suffered just a few months ago –the loss of his mother, the last living member of his immediate family, had dealt his spirit a crushing blow.

But as the novel opens he has the opportunity to travel to Harbin, in Japanese controlled Manchuria, on a cultural mission. Although he has been there before he feels that this may be the decisive trip he needs:

Even though he had taken the path of the wanderer frequently over the past few years in search of he knew not what, never had a trip felt this right; this time felt like nothing less than the road to happiness.

Harbin is a truly international metropolis, with a large Russian community and a distinctly cosmopolitan feel, which for Ilma contrasts favourably with the conservative Korea (Joseon), even down to the colourful clothes versus the traditional white Korean hanbok:

This impression became even stronger when they entered Katiskaya Boulevard. Both sides of the street were lined with old buildings, and people were strolling about – it was like a corner of Europe. It was as if he had come to a foreign country, and Ilma’s heart raced every time he experienced this feeling. The change in colour of the dress of the men and women was even more interesting than the change of seasons. ‘For some reason, whenever I come here, I feel like I’ve arrived at the place I’ve been searching for.’
This impression became even stronger when they entered Katiskaya Boulevard. Both sides of the street were lined with old buildings, and people were strolling about – it was like a corner of Europe. It was as if he had come to a foreign country, and Ilma’s heart raced every time he experienced this feeling. The change in colour of the dress of the men and women was even more interesting than the change of seasons. ‘For some reason, whenever I come here, I feel like I’ve arrived at the place I’ve been searching for.’
The Chulim Department Store, under foreign management, was the best in all of Harbin... There was more than just one language being used. One could hear Russian and English, and the mix of languages emanating from all about the place gave it the feel of an international department store. The goods on display on all floors gave of the subtle glimmer and pleasing vibe of Europe. This was not the result of anything that could happen in a day. This glow that suffused the place was the product of strong traditions, accumulated and passed down over a thousand years. It was like a small display case of Europe itself.

His luck immediately changes as well, winning the 10,000 Won first prize in the lottery (a very handsome but not life transforming amount). He falls in love with an impoverished Russian dancer: Lonely Nadia, who had lost her father in Manjuri and buried her mother in Harbin a few years ago; she lived with her aunt and worked in a cabaret, not even earning one won a day.

The beautiful blond Nadia has film star looks, as his Korean friends remark when they meet her (one of a number of cultural references to Western movies used in the novel)

‘Doesn’t she remind you of Luchaire? Corinne Luchaire, the French actress?’

‘That’s it. That’s who she looks like. That gentle, pure face.’

Alongside his lottery win, Ilma also at the same time gains an embarrassment of romantic riches. He is also pursued by both his first love, who married someone else a decade ago but now regrets it, and a Korean actress, sought after by many men but with eyes only for Ilma. As a friend notes:

'Is there anyone in the world happier than him? Are there not women who will give him their hearts, and women who will give him their lives? It’s hard enough to win the wholehearted love of one woman, and Ilma has two or three clamouring for his love. He must be happier than King Solomon. If you’re going to be born a man, you might as well be born a man like him. Is he such a catch or is it that women have such poor taste? No matter how you see it, it’s quite a spectacle. Could things be more unfair? Cupid must have lost his mind to give one man all the luck in love.’

Much of the (melo)drama of the novel arises from the entangled love lives of Ilma and his friends. One distinctive contrast to Kim Tongin's work is that Lee Hyoseok gives his female characters sexual agency, indeed one even uses a sedative to have her way with Ilma.

Ilma's idealistic view of Harbin is modified as he comes to know its seedier side. There is much poverty, and the Korean community is associated with organised crime. His best friend's uncle runs an apparently respectable pharmacy, but deals in opiates from a backroom, to which one of Nadia's dancer friends becomes addicted, and then the uncle himself falls foul of the local crime syndicates:

Most people know about the evil flowering in the deep, dark recesses of this place, but not many are aware that with the evil and vice, there is also terror lurking there as well.
Most cities were the same, but Harbin, in particular, was a city of empty husks. The streets were international display cases of empty husks, harried by life, wandering in bewilderment. Such thoughts were not new for Ilma, but today they came to him with redoubled intensity.

And Ilma achieves true happiness when he imports the best of the West into Korea, literally by bringing Nadia back as his wife.

The place he longed for was not here, but over there. It was the Western countries that had produced modern civilization. But it was Ilma, more than anyone else, who had boldly sought the object of that nostalgia and imported his dream.

And Nadia's enthusiastic embrace of Korean culture rekindles Ilma's own affection, realising that a blend of the best of East and West is his true dream. Even the very white clothes that to Ilma symbolise the conservatism and lack of colour in Korea, appeal to Nadia.

‘In the past, our ancestors were among the most cultured in the world. They made wonderful pottery and were good painters and musicians.’

'I want to live in the midst of such accomplishments. I want to wear white clothes, look at pottery and paintings, and listen to old music... I must learn the Joseon language. It’s the language of the place I love.’

One thing that distinguishes Honford Star's books is the specially commissioned illustrations for the front covers. Here Korean artist Lee Kyutaehas created an image where "Ilma can be seen walking arm in arm with the hanbok-wearing Nadia past choga, traditional Korean houses made of straw, wood, and soil."

Indeed seeing Nadia enthusiastically embracing Joseon culture, helps Ilma to an epihany:

The sight of Nadia sitting in front of the low table eating Joseon food suddenly seemed very natural to Jongse, and the awkward impression she had once given had disappeared without a trace. This brought up an important point: whether one’s hair is black or red, whether one speaks the same language or not, all sit at the banquet of life as equals, and there is nothing remotely unnatural about this. Differences in lifestyle are not fundamental obstacles to harmony. Whether one eats bread or rice is an inconsequential difference. When love is strong enough, the assimilation of the human race is as simple as can be.

Indeed as Ilma's friends remark, even Nadia' s ostensibly very different looks contain a strong hint of Joseon:

‘In the end, it seems that Ilma’s dream had something to do with Asia after all. The more I look at her face the more Asian it looks. Her eyes, her eyelashes, her nose are all Joseon. The only difference is that her skin is white, and her hair is blonde.’

The novel, other than a rather hasty wrap-up coda, finishes on a lyrically romantic note between Ilma and Nadia, which gives the novel its title.

The sky was particularly blue, and the couple was standing by the window in a state of total bliss. What more could they need?

‘Endless blue sky …’

Both happiness and unhappiness were endless. Staring at the endless blue sky that seemed like endless life, Nadia now felt that her entire body had been dyed azure by that sky of blue.

‘What do you think will fall from that sky?’

겨울날로서는 드물게 푸른 하늘을 내다보면서 부부는 창에 의지해서 행복 의 포화상태에 있었다. 지금 그들에게 더 필요한 것이 또 무엇일 것인가.

“가이없는 푸른 하늘 ...”

행복도 무한하고 불행도 무한한---무한한 인생 같이도 가이없는 창공을 바라보며 나아자는 자기 한 몸이 푸르게 물드는 듯도 한 착각을 느꼈다.

“... 저기서 무엇이 떨어질까요.”

Recommended and I look forward to more books from Honford Star.
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Reading Progress

July 17, 2018 – Shelved
July 17, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
July 20, 2018 – Started Reading
July 21, 2018 – Shelved as: 2018
July 22, 2018 – Finished Reading
November 26, 2018 – Shelved as: korean-literature

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