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Korea Blog: Introducing Kim Hoon, Korea’s Greatest Living Novelist Never Published in English

On a pedestal high above downtown Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square stands Admiral Yi Sun-sin. Generation after generation of Korean schoolchildren have studied the 16th-century naval commander’s unblemished record of victory against the invading Japanese, and four centuries after his death Yi remains the unrivaled symbol of a small, impoverished nation’s will to resist predation by the larger powers surrounding it. His statue was erected in 1968 at the behest of Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who had taken power in a coup d’état seven years before. Park ordered only that the monument depict the Korean most feared and admired by the Japanese who, with Yi long gone, had finally colonized Korea in 1910 and remained in power there until the end of the Second World War.

By the time the Korean War came to its prolonged halt in 1953, the Korean Peninsula was a divided shambles. But at the end of the 20th century, its fully industrialized and democratized southern half boasted a standard of living nearly equal to that of its loathed (but for its economic dynamism, grudgingly respected) former colonial master. How much need remained to mythologize a military figure from the distant past, or for the anti-Japanese sentiment inflamed by official depictions of Admiral Yi and channeled by the likes of Park to rally the South Korean public behind the project of nation-building? Yi has long drawn comparisons to Horatio Nelson: as a masterful and unconventional naval tactician shot down amid his final victory, as the personification of a certain idea of a nation’s spirit, and as the hero of often-told tales. The considerable respect for Admiral Yi by ordinary Koreans has not always been accompanied by a pressing desire to hear his story told once more.

Yet just after the turn of the 21st century, the story of Yi Sun-sin did indeed seize the attention of the Korean reading public afresh. It did so in the form of the novel Song of the Sword (칼의 노래) by Kim Hoon, a career journalist who — in this country transformed seemingly overnight from one of the victims of history into a technologically savvy exporter of cars and computer components — had never driven a car nor used a computer. Kim’s project, articulated plainly, may also have sounded like near-sacrilege: to write not just from the Admiral’s point of view, but in the Admiral’s voice. Drawing on Yi’s own war diaries, Kim needed not invent that voice out of whole cloth, but the clipped, resoundingly unsentimental narration with which the Yi of Song of the Sword relates the final two years of his life nevertheless made an impression on readers who had only perceived their national hero through the grandest, most elevating language. If Yi is Nelson, Song of the Sword is Nelson as rendered by Hemingway.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.