On March 12, the French Nobel prize-winning author, J. M. G. Le Clezio, visited Korea and had a conversation based on his novel, “Bitna: Under the Sky of Seoul.” During the rest of his stay, he also visited various places in Seoul, which appeared in his novel, with the French press.
The works of Le Clezio have been translated into numerous languages. Why do his writings fascinate people of different cultures, regions, and social environments? Perhaps the assessment he received from the Swedish Academy, which selects the winner of the Nobel Literature Prize, is the reason. The Academy called him, “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization.”
Le Clezio once said that Seoul is the city where the best and the worst are coexisting. To him, the worst is the loss of humanity due to the luxurious skyscrapers and artificial high-tech facilities, while the places with human feeling, such as the old temples up on the hills, the back alleys behind the downtown facades of Seoul or the stone wall walkways of ancient palaces are the most attractive images.
The novel “Bitna-Under the Sky of Seoul” depicts the plain atmosphere of Seoul. The main character is Bitna, a young woman who confronts her difficult environments firmly. She is a poor college student from a fishing hamlet in Jeolla Province. After coming up to Seoul to study in university, she gets a part-time job by the chance telling of a story to a lonely girl, Salome, who cannot go outside, as she suffers from complex regional pain syndrome. Since her parents committed suicide to escape from her incurable disease, inherits a great fortune and thus Salome has no inconveniences in life, but craves for Bitna’s stories of what happens in Seoul.
Listening to Bitna’s stories Salome can travel every corner of the city: Sincheon, Seorae Village of Bangbae-dong, Yongsan, the streets of Hongik University, Dangsan-dong, Oryu-dong, Chungmu-ro, Jongno, Myeong-dong, Yeongdeungpo, Yeouido, Insa-dong, Anguk-dong, Gyeongbok Palace, Changdeok Palace, Cheong Gye Cheon, Mount Bukhan, Mount Nam, Jamsil, the Han River. All the people he met at those places, and the real stories he heard, are merged into his novel.
The author expressed the soul and atmosphere of Korea and especially Seoul, with his incredible insight, though he is a foreigner who did not spend much time in Korea. He manifested the pain of a divided nation through Mr. Cho, a man who has nostalgia for his northern hometown, and expressed solidarity among neighbors in a barren city. He also depicted the fear of young women through a stalker episode and the sorrowful end of an idol singer who had become a sacrificial lamb for greedy men. The alienation of human beings from the gap between the rich and the poor in the metropolis of Seoul is one of the major themes in the novel. Each story that Bitna tells to Salome reflects a different theme of Seoul but is also linked to the other stories, like people traveling in a subway car, not suspecting that they were destined to meet each other one day, somewhere in the great city.
The novel ends with a monologue by Bitna, which is as follows:
“I walk beneath the sky of Seoul. The clouds slowly roll by. Over Gangnam, it is raining. Toward Incheon, the sun sets, kindling a bright glow, and Bukhansan Mountain emerges from the rain to the north, towering like a giant. I am alone. My life is about to begin.”
Although the novel seems to focus on the despair and darkness in Seoul, the author finishes the novel by saying that life is made more brilliant and meaningful through frustrating trials and events.
The French writer Le Clezio articulated the spirit of Seoul through his keen insight. Reading the story made it possible to form an outlook on the city, Seoul. It is true that Seoul is full of apartments which may ensure individual privacy, but that same privacy also blocks the reciprocal relationships with neighbors.
Actually, Seoul developed its closed lifestyle of apartment dwelling after the Korean War (1950-1953). Since all infrastructure was destroyed, the government could not but reduce the burden of the nation as much as possible, by shifting its responsibility of the housing problem to the citizens. In this historical flow, we can ask ourselves whether Seoul is now changing with genuineness and what today’s urban space is aiming for.
By You Seo-yeon
Associate Editor of National Section